Wednesday, 25 May 2016

The Indestructible Man

Simon Messingham The Indestructible Man (2004)
I was having a shitty day and I wanted comfort food, and then I remembered that there were still a couple of these old BBC Who novels I'd never got around to reading, and this one seemed a safe bet due to a vague memory of someone or other saying it was amongst the better efforts.

It isn't. At least I hope it isn't. It's been a while since I was obsessively buying a couple of these things every month, and while there have been a few stone cold classics which I've revisited and found to actually be humungously shit, I know there were some decent ones - Ghost Devices, The Taking of Planet 5, Christmas on a Rational Planet and so on, all of which I've revisited and found worth the effort; but - to get to the point - rose-tinted spectacles or not, I can't quite bring myself to believe that this represents anything but the lower end.

It's essentially Doctor Who vs. Captain Scarlet with Patrick Troughton dematerialising in the world once painted for us by Gerry Anderson through the magic of string puppets. To be specific, it's the world several years after the events of Gerry Anderson's UFO as retrofitted to Captain Scarlet continuity so that the saucer people from UFO were actually the Mysterons. In case it isn't obvious from the cover with Wendy Padbury's face photoshopped onto a tinsel-wigged Anderson dolly bird, there are problems with this whole concept.

Firstly, there's no real reason for Captain Scarlet fanfic to exist. It was fine as a kid's puppet show. Excepting maybe action figures, Dinky toys and annuals at Christmas, it never needed to be anything else.

Secondly, the serial numbers have been filed off for the obvious legal reasons so that, for example, SPECTRUM becomes PRISM, and Ed Straker's SHADO becomes Hal Bishop's SILOET - shadow, silhouette, and Straker was played by Ed Bishop - do you see? The problem with this is that it becomes irritating quickly, bordering on unbearable by the time we arrive at bootleg Thunderbirds continuity with Brains recast as Boffin - because apparently that name was the next best alternative - and Tracy Island as Sharon Island.

Seriously? Sharon Island? That's what you came up with?

Thirdly, with just the details described thus far, we might have been all right but for how fucking grim this world has become. Society has broken down, much like in Alan Moore's V for Vendetta - so we have death penalties, paramilitary law enforcement, slave labour, rape, murder, death, broken glass everywhere, people pissing on the stairs, you know they just don't care. I vaguely recall an episode of Captain Scarlet where our boy is sacked from SPECTRUM and ends up pissed with a five o'clock shadow in some dive bar asking what's a nice girl like you doing in a place like this just before he falls of his stool like the hopeless radgie cunt he has apparently become, all of which turns out to be a ruse designed to lull the Mysterons into a false sense of security; and while it was grim, this is considerably grittier and nastier; and children's television characters being raped whilst taking heroin was amusing up until about 1979 at the most recent; so just no.

Fourthly, none of the above would have been an insurmountable obstacle were it simply written a little better, like with a hint of something other than a book clicking its heels together and wishing it were on the box, and in doing so mistaking tension and pacing with that vague impersonation of a Lynda La Plante voiceover which people who'd much rather be writing screenplays tend to equate with hard-hitting drama; because books are just telly with no pictures innit.

At last he turned, taking in Alex Storm's pockmarked, brutal face. A face that hid a searing intelligence. Oh, and a psychotic homicidal personality.

Why does that need to be three sentences, particularly when only the first actually does what a sentence is traditionally supposed to do?

Oh, and a psychotic homicidal personality.

See, that's just an isolated description of something, and not even a very good one given that the pertinent psychosis hardly requires statement because there isn't really such a thing as a light-hearted homicidal personality; and the tale shifts point of view from page to page, so oh, and used as though we're party to actual thoughts is simply annoying and reads like an author trying too hard; or who just doesn't read much.

The air was sweet with decay.

Dude, learn to fucking write.

The thing with TV tie-in fiction, or indeed anything using material established in another medium, is that at least some of the labour is already done for the author, allowing them to invoke a familiar character rather than endure all the usual donkey work of writing a book - usually amounting to having Patrick Troughton exclaim oh my giddy aunt every few pages in this case, although admittedly The Indestructible Man seems more or less untroubled by that particular cliché. Unfortunately this also leads to authors not bothering to do the rest of the work they might normally be required to do when writing a novel, instead just pinning a series of name tags to some half-assed plot and trusting that it'll be screened as an episode of a television show in our respective mind's eyes, but probably with better effects. This is why I would say it's actually harder to write this kind of thing well than it is to generate original material, because hands up who remembers Stingray? does not in itself constitute world-building any more than Peter Kay asking the same question constitutes comedy.

Fuck it, why not...

Fifthly, it turns out that the surviving Tracy brother - or rather the surviving Sharon brother tee-hee - very much enjoys the music of Scott Walker, which is probably harmless, but nevertheless seems to relate to one of those aspects I always loathed about written Who fiction, namely the bit where the author gives us a nod to his fave bands, which is almost always either the Cure or the Smiths, and just reads like okay, I know I can't write but I'm doing my best, and I'm aware that I haven't quite got these plot details to add up to an even number, but hey! Who likes Love Cats? What a classic!

I get the feeling I'm expected to submit an imaginary high-five. This guy digs the Cure! Wow! How cool is that!? It never works for me. If anything, it has the opposite of the presumably desired effect because apparently I hate the music beloved of most Who authors - particularly the Cure and the Smiths - so from my perspective it's like having someone you don't know digging you in the ribs as prelude to an uncomfortable conversation falsely predicated on a shared love of Jonathan King and Skrewdriver.

Of course, none of the above will have mattered to a section of the readership, because the narrative, what it does, or how well it does it are subsidiary to the cast of characters, the boxes ticked, the continuity slot it occupies between The Space Pirates and The Menagerie, or the fact of it carrying a particular logo on the cover. For some, the quality of the story will be its least crucial aspect, which is I suppose how so much of this stuff has managed to get itself published over the years.

Yet, in spite of all of the above, The Indestructible Man isn't terrible, although I realise that you'll have to squint one fuck of a lot to read that as praise. It's an annoying book and I didst groan and wail and gnash my teeth with some frequency, but mostly it manages to keep from becoming boring, despite everything. I think the tragedy - if that isn't an overstatement considering that none of this really matters - is that there was probably a half-decent novel in here. It's hard to care about the characters, so oddly, their shoddy construction doesn't really get in the way so much as it might, and the narrative just about holds together as an averagely intriguing mystery while we try to work out just what the hell the Myloki formerly known as Mysterons actually are, knowing full well the answer will probably be a massive disappointment.

So there you go. The Indestructible Man was better than I suppose I expected in so much as that it hints at the potential to have been readable; but could have been worse is hardly a recommendation.

1 comment:

  1. It is the lower end of the range. Whoever told you otherwise is lying.