A Matter of Perspective

This month: Steve Lyons’ Conundrum

JF: Starting on the first page - what did you think of the cover of Conundrum?

AW: I really like the cover! It's a striking picture (and accurate) of Ace, and enough mystery to make you wonder just what IS going on in the story. The blurb doesn't give it away, but the reader can make an informed guess about the location from a combination of that and the cover.

JF: Talking about Ace - this was quite a controversial time for her character where her developments split opinion. What did you think of her portrayal?

AW: I thought Lyons wrote her well, but he wasn't helped by the on-going angst between the TARDIS team at the time. I think the nature of the story puts it to one side to an extent, and the book doesn't suffer for it. Thankfully all the arguing and in fighting isn't the main focus here, and the cleverness of what Lyons has constructed works well to distract from the moments when it does occur, never making it seem laboured.

JF: Do you remember first reading the book? Did you guess where the book was set back then? How do you think Steve Lyons did in bringing the Land of Fiction to a new generation of readers?

AW: I do remember first reading it, not long after it was released, and I remember thoroughly enjoying it. I had seen The Mind Robber before I read it, but I don't remember if I worked it out or not! It was 17 years ago after all! Re-reading it though, there's a massive clue near the start, and is what the Doctor actually says made him realise where they were - the TARDIS materialising as a gingerbread cottage! That was back when the chameleon circuit was working for a while. It's a very clever little reveal so early on, and as I read it again it did make me smile. As for how Lyons did in bringing it to a new generation of readers, I think he did an admirable job, and has so many story threads that all play into the whole. It's very well plotted, and even cleverer than its predecessor (but I love The Mind Robber too!).

JF: Do you think this environment suits a novel more than television - for example Ace being able to literally jump out of the narrative. Did you like all the clever narrative tricks?

AW: Oh it's exceptionally clever, with so many twists and reveals that seemingly come from nowhere, but make perfect sense. I think there definitely an advantage to the story being written in novel form, and that being the old cliché of the reader's imagination being capable of conjuring up a far more impressive version than would have been on television at the time it was written. Ace being attacked by flying NAs and Target novels is something that the mind can create far better than a television show could - and makes much more sense in that it's written in the medium of prose. TV probably would have shown videos being thrown at her, or books on bits of string! The imagination is a far more powerful tool, and the book positively relishes in that fact.

JF: The seventh Doctor and Bernice Summerfield are a popular combination, how do they fare?

AW: The Doctor is just as we know him here, playing games (literally - he plays Travel Scrabble at one point!) and you learn at the end that he pretty much knew where they were all along - but as usual leaves everyone else in the dark! He's certainly the manipulator that becomes commonplace amongst the NAs, but he doesn't suffer for it. He's right in the thick of the action, and is very much the Doctor we know, saving people once more. A standout is when he saves Rosemary Chambers, and his intervention causes Sheridan to doubt himself and give himself up to the police. Bernice is well characterised once more, and it's good that while she feels she knows the Doctor better, she is still troubled by some of his past actions (such as destroying an entire timeline in Blood Heat). She does really try with Ace too, and listens as she reveals her feelings and doubts about the Doctor and then goes to tell him! She obviously just wants the tension gone - as does the reader by now! - but it all blows up in her face. Poor Benny!

JF: And the prose?

AW: Non-pretentious, engaging and very readable. It's a murder mystery to begin with, but opens up to be so much more, and it's to Lyons' credit that the way it's written contributes to how much the reader is drawn in and wants to read on.

JF: Could you highlight any faults with the novel?

AW: The bickering is something that needed getting rid of a long time ago, but since this dynamic was probably imposed upon Lyons, it's hardly his fault. Other than that...it's very well done. It's such an enjoyable and intriguing read it's hard to find much fault with it. And it was his first novel! Superb!

JF: And your rating?

AW: I'd give it a 9/10, but a very high 9. It's only the 'TARDIS turmoil' that knocks that extra point off. A very, very good book.

                                     The Witch Hunters by Steve Lyons

Andrew:  Each month we'll be taking a look a look at a Doctor Who novel, but with a twist: one of us will read the book; the other will interrogate minus the lamps in faces and shouted threats (possibly – Joe) them about it. First up is First Doctor novel The Witch Hunters by Steve Lyons. Joe's been reading this one, so I shall begin the grilling! Joe, first impressions of the novel? How seamlessly did it fit into its television era?

Joe:  This could easily be a four part adventure set between seasons one and two, it captures the seriousness of how they dealt with the historicals at the time and takes its time to explore the culture and beliefs of Salem and puts the regulars in danger thanks to the populace’s prejudice and mistrust.

Andrew:  In tone, which stories could it be said to closest resemble? It seems to have more than a hint of The Aztecs about it - would this be a fair comparison?

Joe:  Indeed it does have a touch of The Aztecs about it and in how it explores the idea of not being able to change time it touches on the central dilemma of that story. This time we are dealing with Susan rather than Barbara who is put in the uncomfortable position of wanting alter a barbaric period of history.

Andrew:  The focus being on Susan, how does she fare in the novel? On screen Susan was very often sidelined and left with little to do. Does Steve Lyon give her character some much needed 'rehabilitation' in the same way he did for the Sixth Doctor and later to Dodo?

Joe:  Unusually Susan is right at the core of this novel and the horror of the era is related through her. What I found especially thrilling (not being the biggest fan of the character) was how Lyons managed to capture her voice authentically (you could hear Carole Ann Ford saying the lines) but allow you to sympathise with her completely. From the very first scene she is caught up in the mass hysteria of the time and once the Doctor realises they are in the exact period of the Salem burnings he whisks her away from Salem. In an act that proves she is growing up and wishes to do things her own way she takes the TARDIS back against his wishes, determined to save the lives of the friends that she knows will be burnt at the stake. We have never seen this level of conviction from Susan before and it’s a shame that we never had this strength of characterisation on screen. Her relationship with the Doctor is given far more depth here as he can see that she is slowly slipping through his fingers.

Andrew:  An impressive feat, and certainly a much-needed additional to Susan's characterisation by the sounds of it. The Doctor too sounds as if he is given plenty to do. Does Lyons capture this incarnation well, and not resort to the ticks and mannerisms that are sometimes lazily in an attempt to write for the character? Does he resist the urge to use 'fluffed' lines as part of the Doctor's speech?

Joe:  I didn't spot too many fluffs or gaffes from the first Doctor but I do think Lyons has been guilty of emphasising these traits in the past. There are scenes that bookend the story where the Doctor (nearing the end of regeneration) takes Rebecca Nurse to the future to witness The Crucible (the play on which this story is based) where you can really feel he is trying to make a victim of his temporal impotence understand his responsibility to time. They are extremely poignant scenes because although he cannot save her, he allows her to go to her death knowing that something good will come from the injustice. Similarly he has some very thoughtful scenes with Susan; there is one moment where the pair of them stare out at the gallows as the sun goes down, like sentinels watching of the town. He faces tough choices and the toughest is to walk away, The Witch Hunters really emphasises that.

Andrew:  It's encouraging that it deals so much with the morality that the Doctor faces. We, the reader, are urging the Doctor to assist and change history, all the while knowing that he can't/won't. It certainly seems to highlight the different moral dilemmas that he often faces in these situations, again wholly in keeping with the stories of the era. It's interesting to note the mention of two versions of the Doctor. How does Lyons differentiate between the two? Is there a noticeable difference in their outlook on events?

Joe:  The Doctor trapped in the past is far more concerned with the effects on his Granddaughter, the Doctor post Five Doctors feels a much more tired character, one has looked back on his adventures and feels the need to correct the mistakes of the past before he moves on. In both respects it is a far gentler interpretation than we usually saw on the telly. In a moment of shocking clarity we as the reader realise it was the Doctor who convinced the jailer to dismiss Rebecca's husbands please for help, you really sense that he is responsible for making sure history stays on track, even if it means abandoning his own morality.

Andrew:  Interesting, and a very considered interpretation of the character by the sounds of it. How about the other two regulars? With so much going on with the Doctor and Susan, are Ian and Barbara and little neglected? If so, are they at least well written?

Joe:  Ian and Barbara are neglected slightly but they are both superbly written. Barbara gets her history head on which was very in keeping with the time and surprisingly Ian gets quite twitchy in this time period. He is locked up and in a very uncomfortable moment is stripped of his clothes and has hands run all over his body to search for a witch’s tit. The story highlights the Doctor and Susan but then that is often the way with so many regulars. It is a very uncomfortable story for all of the regulars. Because we care for them as much as we do the atmosphere is stifling.

Andrew:  Sounds very dramatic! Is there any humour to alleviate the tension?

Joe:  None at all as far as I can see but I find the desperate tension the story's greatest asset, you are completely sucked into the unfairness of events. The story never shies away from the fact that these events really happened and it was a terrible travesty.

Andrew:  Well it seems to Steve Lyons for pushing forward with what sounds like a very engaging to thoroughly absorbing read. Any particular personal highlights from the novel?

Joe:  Too many to mention! The scenes of the girls having fits to deliberately ensure that people are hanged are frightening, as is the moment Rebecca is dragged from her home and ex-communicated - destroying her soul before they murder her. It’s a fatalistic tone throughout and one that makes you genuinely angry at the unfairness of what is going on. My absolute favourite moment in the book comes when Samuel Parris, the Reverend who has been praying on the community's fears, is given a taster of his own medicine when the Doctor encourages Susan to have her own fit and point the finger at him being a warlock. They manage to show him just how easy it is manipulate people into burning him. Very satisfying. What I particularly liked about this book was how it dealt with some really weighty themes and made some excellent points about mass hysteria that are still relevant today but Lyons tells the story with light, effortlessly readable prose that never feels too dour or boring. His technique is excellent at getting to the nub of the drama without labouring the point.

Andrew:  With all this praise it sounds like a must-read, but in the interests of balance, are there any parts of the book that are less successful or that could have been done better? Or does Lyons pretty much get it all right?

Joe:  You wont enjoy this is you only look to Doctor Who for escapism as it has little interest in making you laugh. Some Doctor Who books entertain, some instruct, this one makes you feel. It’s easily one of the most thoughtful novels in the range and one of the most emotive. As a historical piece that immerses you in the atmosphere of the time and gets you involved in the plight of the characters this is a complete success story. One of the finest Past Doctor Adventures.

Andrew:  As if it were needed, what rating would you give?

Joe:  10/10 - any book that can leave me weeping with anger deserves full marks

Andrew:  Bravo Mr Lyons! Next month I'll be taking on another Lyons novel, Conundrum! Talk about light and shade! Any thoughts on that or on The Witch Hunters you can send to thethirdzone@hotmail.co.uk, and we'll publish them in the next issue.

What the author said: Yes, I’m very pleased with the way ‘The Witch Hunters’ turned out, and with the reaction to it. If ever there was One Book I Always Wanted to Write, ‘The Witch Hunters’ is it. I’d actually submitted it three times to Virgin – twice as a New Adventure and once as a Past Doctor Adventure in pretty much the same form that it eventually saw print – and I’d had it rejected three times, but remained convinced that it would work. In the end, it was a very good thing that I got to write it as my sixth novel rather than my first, because it was a difficult one to write and it helped that I had some experience by then. It wasn’t so much the fatalism that made it hard, more the sheer depth of the historical detail that I had to deal with. Unlike, say, the last days of Pompeii, we know so much about what went on in Salem in 1692 that I was terrified of writing almost anything in case I got it wrong! Sometimes it felt like I couldn’t go two sentences without having to get out a book and look up some odd detail. The First Doctor, Ian, Barbara and Susan on the other hand were a gift. I found them some of the easiest Doctor Who characters to capture in print because their characters are so well-defined on screen.