'Doctor Who': 'The Beast of Babylon' - Review

When a girl called Ali pockets a silver orb that falls from the sky, little does she realize it's her ticket to seeing the universe! Desperate to retrieve the mysterious object, the Ninth Doctor agrees to let her join him on a dangerous trip to ancient Babylon. Together they must join forces to stop a giant Starman from destroying Earth before it's too late!

Disclaimer no.1: This is a Puffin book, but just like with 'Doctor Who' in general, the whole family can be said to be its target audience. And this persistent lack of Ninth Doctor adventures definitely makes it interesting to all fans.

Disclaimer no.2: For the sake of sanity, we are ignoring the 'Doctor Who' annihilation anniversary episode and build our impressions on Series 1 (2005) alone.

Spoilers ahead.

Remember that badass Malekith, going about his business barefoot? Nine can actually save the universe without his socks and boots on! (One wonders why the Eighth Doctor made such a fuss about shoes...)

Marianne: "The story is set in the 18 seconds from when Rose turned down the Doctor, to when he came back and asked her to travel with him again."

Alex: "Popular fan speculation point, these seconds. It's a big responsibility to offer a more or less canon answer. It's very important to remember where in the season the story is set."

The Beast offers a variant of those 'Doctor Who' stories where the Doctor meets a could-be/would-be companion and takes them to an entirely different environment. As the current companion comes from another planet, the alien world role is assigned to our own Earth. Connecting thread is a new enemy in the (unpredictable) shape of the Starmen.

M: "The Starmen were worthy villains. Their backstory was intriguing and properly detailed. The zodiac connection was interesting and proves once again that the Doctor is involved in most of Earth's history. I felt though like the Babylonians were in the story just to highlight Ali's shortcomings."

A: "The enemy was very effective. Out of proportions, very dangerous, very alien. Easily the best thing about the story. The pseudo-historical setting worked for me - the Babylonians were indeed more like a device than proper characters, but the overall treatment was very much in the tradition of the First Doctor adventures, with some educational brownie points. For me the only reason why they should have spent more time in Babylon, is that the Doctor acted more like Nine once they arrived there."

M: "The Doctor's best plan is no plan at all, which is totally him."

A: "Absolutely. Can't go wrong with that."

M: "This was very well stated and shows Higson gets 'Doctor Who':
That's why I need a companion,' he said. 'To keep my feet on the ground, and my head out of the clouds. To keep me from myself. It's people like Rose, and crustaceans like you, Ali, who keep me going, who remind me that it's not all over and it's not all about me. My people may have gone, but you have your people ... and Hammurabi had his people, and everyone has their own people. And every one of them is precious."

A: "Gets 'Doctor Who' - or uses his retrospective position shamelessly to his advantage? It summarises Nine's one-season ark, but I can't see the Doctor thinking and especially talking like this before 'The End of the World' (the episode that's set up as the first time somebody speaks to him/he tells somebody about the war), before the massive turning point of 'Dalek' (where he does kill Rose)."

M: "There were a few parts to warm a Doctor x Rose shipper's heart, but I find it extremely odd that Ali would pick up on the Doctor's feelings towards Rose and give him relationship advice."

A: "Yet another example of retrospective 'cleverness' - including the future friendship between the Doctor and Rose and almost moving into fanfiction territory. It practically turns into a soap opera here that's a bit distasteful."

M: "Nine acts like Five and talks like Ten for much of the novel. Nine does not get on his knees and beg like a dog. Eleven may engage in such behavior, but not Nine!"

A: "If among the Five traits you count two-tone switch indecisiveness/ruthlessness, yes, in Nine it was just ruthlessness, live wire acuteness. Physical side rang false a couple of times too. Nine can react and be humorous without grinning madly. He has a whole arsenal of smiles. My impression is that the Ninth Doctor has a very stable, distinct speech pattern. There's no excuse for ignoring it - it's so obvious when an author deviates from the pattern."

M: "This is a really good point and I wonder if it was just laziness on the author's part or just bringing in previous Doctor's personality traits into Nine's character which makes no sense to me. The other Ninth Doctor books were written before the series aired, so it's understandable if they run into problems. This time the author had years to study the Ninth Doctor."

A: "It can't be a conscious choice, can it? More likely the author just failed to isolate Nine from the other Doctors he's familiar with. And the default mode from the early novels does crop up here and there. Thankfully there weren't many obligatory 'eating soup with a fork' moments of eccentricity - the main incident being wading in the pond.

"Rather peculiar moment it was too, as it made it questionable how much he actually knew about the society (endangering the eggs). Nothing will beat 'The Deviant Strain' when it comes to Nine and out of season bathing, though.

"I thought Ali and the Doctor's meeting made for an unfortunate start. When Ali asked for information in exchange for the orb - the Doctor could have just repeated 'So what do you really want?' instead of uncharacteristically pleading. I honestly don't understand what this stunt's about."

M: "I almost put the book down because it was so out of character for what we know about Nine at this point of his run."

A: "And as if the Adric vibe wasn't strong enough: Ali's not impressed by the TARDIS. She's even heard about the Time Lords. Really deflating."

M: "Ali was a bit of a know it all, but when things got dangerous she got violent instead of using her intellect. The Doctor should have left the TARDIS door closed, and had Ali watch him from the monitor, when they first reached Babylon. He usually leaves the door closed when he disembarks. This seemed a bit contrived just so that we get our first hint that Ali was not humanoid."

A: "I wouldn't call it contrived - it's a bit of a tradition that the Doctor leaves the door ill-advisedly shut or open. And I'll give it to the author, it was a good attempt to seed the hints of how alien is the alien: From the man=bloke/man=human subversion at the start to casual mentions of increasingly strange anatomy. Less successful was the way it skewed the story-telling and forced the Doctor into uncharacteristic behaviour."

M: "Too bad the dispensing of the villain depended on violence and brute strength. The Doctor was extremely lucky he had a companion that had both of those attributes. Nine may have looked like he would get into a fist fight at any time, but that was not his modus operandi.

"The Doctor was saved by the very thing that defines Ali, his companion. He is right in saying he can't ask her to change, but it is a slight none the less."

A: "It was perfectly beastly of him to dismiss her like that (he could be ruthlessly kind, too). Going back to the Nestene Consciousness: Did the Doctor ever berate Rose for saving his life there? She did destroy the creature, after he'd told her, 'I'm not here to kill it.'

"Of course, it's much more complicated with Ali. I was expecting it to be a lesson scenario. Maybe I'm thinking in too simple terms, but it seemed to be on the page, feeling angry and mad - the author had a choice between berserker and overzealous teen (something they grow out of, hormones, etc., boredom as motivation fits too), and went with the former.

"Plenty of unanswered questions. Why was she 'born to be a warrior'? Matriarchal society, with strong females - and precarious breeding. And it's a civilised planet, with schools and picnics and what not. Actually, in order to avoid revealing too much, the author gave us a very generic setting. There's something really wrong with the socio-psychological world building."

M: "Especially in a book whose target audience are children and teens."

A: "The whole plot of the Beast hinges on the unearthly companion, and that didn't do Nine any favours. Arguably, there isn't a Ninth Doctor book that manages a consistent, believable start to finish portrayal (for some reason comics fare somewhat better*). And it proved to be a stumbling block for Higson too. To conclude, it's a very readable, fun story that takes a short-cut or three with its main character."

M: "There are so few Nine adventures that anything new is welcome. I was disappointed that the author decided to focus on an original character rather than giving the fans an adventure featuring Nine's companions, Rose and Jack. I felt it was a missed opportunity. 'The Beast of Babylon' was worth a read just to be able to spend a little more time with my favorite Time Lord. Hopefully Ali can forward the Doctor his boots as thanks for the adventure she had."

* Check out the new 'Doctor Who' comic anthology 'The Prisoners of Time'. The Ninth Doctor part contains a major spoiler though - not a good starting point.

Other 'The Beast of Babylon' reviews:
Sci-fi Bulletin
Den of Geek

Join the discussion: What did you think? Which Ninth Doctor novel is your favourite? What kind of 'Doctor Who' books would you like to see?


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this! I'll give the book a go when I get the chance.

Marianne said...

Anon, I hope you enjoy 'The Beast of Babylon' and decide to share your thoughts with us.

Linnea said...

I haven't read The Beast of Babylon, but I've recently listened to the audiobooks of the six Ninth Doctor novels that came out in 2005. Winner Takes All and Only Human are my favorites, and The Deviant Strain was the only one I actually disliked. My opinions are probably colored by how good the narration was - Deviant Strain had the weakest narrator. I think it's the first time I read something about characters I already knew from the screen - it was surprising how similar the experience was. The characters really did seem like the same people they were on tv. I wrote more about it here

Marianne said...

Linnea, I would like to hear what you think about Beast of Babylon in comparison to the other Ninth Doctor novels. The first three The Clockwise Man, The Monsters Inside, and Winner Takes All were written prior to Series 1 being aired. This inevitably leads to deviations in characterizations.

Did you enjoy the Bad Wolf references throughout the novels or did you find them annoying?

I wonder if your opinion about The Deviant Strain would change if you read the book since you didn't seem to enjoy the narrator. I found the plot exciting and secondary characters well developed. There was plenty of action and the horror element was effective. Sometimes a narrator's vocal emphasis will color a story. It is like listening to the same song covered by two different artists. You may prefer one over the other.