Tuesday, June 9, 2009

the slitheen excursion

The Slitheen Excursion (spoilers)

I’ve liked everything I’ve read of Simon Guerrier’s, and The Slitheen Excursion is no exception. I don’t think I found it quite the delight I did The Pirate Loop probably because of lack of Martha, but for an entirely original companion June is memorable. I’m glad by the end of the book the Doctor didn’t just dump her and move on to greener pastures. There’s potential for more adventures.

From the blurb on the back of the book I expected more action in present-day Athens but to my pleasant surprise, most of the book was set in 1500 BC. In general I do tend to gravitate toward historical rather than futuristic adventures, but this one is set in a past so remote, I think a bit more leeway can be given—an age of gods and monsters, which is perfect for Doctor Who. Heck, the Doctor even references Clash of the Titans! I know from reading Simon’s blog he did a lot of research and I believe the period is one of his wife’s specialties (her name is in the acknowledgments). I know I personally struggle to find the balance between transmitting all the cool info about historical settings and not overwhelming the audience, so I think this book achieved that playfully.

Like all good stories that introduce a new companion, the book starts by introducing us to June, an English Classics student on research/holiday in Greece. June is a good enough student that she can get away with giving us a mini-history of the Parthenon (a bit like how technobabble coming out of Nyssa’s mouth in “Castrovalva” is much more believable than when it comes from Tegan!). She’s also charming and refreshingly normal, to the point we’re not even given a physical description, as Jamie pointed out (for some reason I had Adi in my mind, so June looks like Adi to me!). There’s some mild satire on Greek bureaucracy (no doubt gleaned from experience), and June, being human, flirts with guards at the Parthenon. This is what I like about Simon, and the only other person I’ve really read who does it as well is Jacqueline Rayner. The Martha in Pirate Loop really appealed to me because her crush on the Doctor was described in a naturalistic way—many of the writers tended to ignore this altogether or made it a token footnote. June doesn’t fancy the Doctor, but she does fancy other characters in the book, and again this seems like it’s done with subtlety. I’m a girl, and I believe in June’s reactions as those of a girl!

Anyway, as is so often the case, it’s June who does the rescuing of the Doctor when she scares away some aliens who are “trying to blow up the Acropolis.” (For some reason when I see her going “Rahhrr!” I picture Scut Farkus from A Christmas Story and Randy screaming helplessly.) June is clearly companion material from the first time she meets the Doctor.
‘I’m obviously not as funny-looking as you.
‘I’m not funny looking!’ she protested.
In that scene she reminds me a bit of a young, bookish Rose. Like Rose, June’s compassion plays a large part in her getting involved in the Doctor’s misadventures, as she urges him to respond to a distress signal, even if it brings her to Athens in the far-distant past. Once there, the narrative speeds ahead, plotted with great cliffhanger material such as being “kidnapped” by fierce warrior women in chariots, then sharing oily meals with them (I do believe Horrible Histories: The Romans announced that the Romans had a stick with a sponge on the end of it in lieu of toilet paper, but that only makes sense if you’ve read Slitheen Excursion page 43). There’s a really well-written scene of a shipwreck, which is made all the more poignant by a bewildered June’s experience of a cornucopia of ancient Greek experiences at the beach. The Doctor—with a fair bit of help from June—wins over the Greeks, who are being sent as champions/sacrifices (à la Theseus and the Minotaur) to the alien “masters.”

There’s a wonderful discussion between the Doctor and June after the devastation of the typhoon which seems similar in tone to the Second Doctor and Victoria in “Tomb of the Cybermen” (or even has a ring of The Time Travellers' First Doctor). June didn’t feel very indomitable. . . . There were only six of them left now to face the dreaded Slitheen. As per the title, the reader knows, of course, that the alien masters are the Slitheen. It occurred to me while reading the book that though the Slitheen seem to proliferate, their last appearance in Doctor Who proper rather than the spinoffs was “Boom Town.” I think it’s difficult to take them and give them any more nuance, though some ground on that was gained in Sarah Jane Adventures, but at least not all of the Slitheen family shown in this book are cut of the same cloth. For the high-minded, the book makes some attempts at discussion on the nature of tourism, satirizing modern consumer-culture tourists with their alien counterparts who have come by invitation of the Slitheen to observe the quaint gladiatorial customs of Earthlings (who have, by their time, made themselves feared and loathed as brutal warmongers). To this end some questions can be raised about eco-tourism and the ethics of many of our leisure activities.

Back in 2002 when I first started at UNM, Monica Cyrino delivered a lecture on why sword-and-sandal epics, starting with Gladiator, had come back into fashion, citing the fact that filmmakers were comparing the US to the Roman Empire at the stage where it was just coming down from its days of glory and beginning to collapse. Is that viewpoint valid? I think you could argue either way. But I have to admit I was thinking of Maximus
[2] and his coercing fellow gladiators into working together as the Doctor, June, and their friends had to defeat the Slitheen or die in the sand pit. There’s a battle re-enacted for the benefit of the Slitheen’s clients, one in which those brutal humans of the future slaughtered their alien rivals, that also makes me think of Gladiator. I was also thinking of a story I had read during the Children of Time contest, where the Ninth Doctor and Jack had to participate in their own games in order to save Rose and the other combatants. In any case I really enjoyed the scene where the Doctor basically invented the bull acrobatics we see now in Cretan artwork. Yeah, that sounds like something the Doctor would invent[3]! I also really loved when the Doctor had the opportunity to bury one of the Slitheen in a mountain of rock cakes!

To combat the generally high degree of violence and death necessarily found in such a plot, there’s an amusing moment where the Doctor is mistaken by the Slitheen Cosmo for a sort of travel writer on assignment, with June as his assistant and Greek Deukalion (a delightful character) as their grunting human guide. There’s a football joke I can totally see sneaking into a future TV show script someday. Once the Slitheen realize who the Doctor really is, though, it’s his wits and June’s quick thinking and courage that keep them alive long enough to schmooze with the tourists, and with a bit of subtle manipulation from the Doctor (and June’s admirer the merman Cecrops, whose attentions fluster her until he falls for Aglauros the Greek) the tourists start to see the Slitheen for the ruthless opportunists they are. Still, things look tense when a real battle between the aliens and the humans seems inevitable, led by the warrior women daughters of King Actaeus. Simon has a lot more faith in humanity than I do: June turned to see Herse and Polos protecting the lion-faced man from two human soldiers. The lion-faced man seemed even more appalled to be rescued by humans than attacked by them. They are aided in preventing the all-out bloodbath by a really cute scene where the humans have to rescue a baby lion-faced creature. The lion-faced family, along with the Balumins from Pirate Loop, deserve to be illustrated as well.

I did wonder for quite a long time how the Slitheen the Ninth Doctor encounters in “Aliens of London” didn’t recognize him, but I think it’s because Leeb, Mamps, and Cosmo (great names; in fact all the characters are well-named) spend the intervening period locked in calcium suspension (à la the trolls trapped in gold in The 10th Kingdom, but that’s another story) so they couldn’t tell anyone about the Doctor. In a roundabout, timey wimey way, this brings us back to the future (back to the Whoture?) to where June met the Doctor and the aliens who were “blowing up” the Acropolis. Timey wimey is Simon’s specialty, based on The Time Travellers and Pirate Loop. No pirates in Slitheen Excursion, but lots of Greeks and June, who certainly deserves some more adventures. Don’t go back to Birmingham yet; what are you thinking??

[1] That’s rich, coming from Tennant, but there you go . . .
[2] Actually based on a character who launched his rebellion from modern-day Caernarfon.
[3] If I get a chance, that’s a scene that definitely needs to be illustrated. Action!Doctor.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

What's always interesting is how different people react to the same things.

For me, the way June acts and reacts throughout the story put me in mind of Sally Sparrow. Both exhibit similar qualities in crisis and are independent enough to achieve success in their endeavors. Other folks have complained that she's too much a generic companion. Personally, I found her to be alright.

This is a story which could have happened anywhen/where. Still, I found the detail nice, the storm was traumatic and the Slitheen suitably slick and cruel. I wonder at their family structure!

Mr. Guerrier is wonderful with all the intricacies of time travel and causality. I was impressed when I read The Time Travelers and The Pirate Loop showed he's clever with the whole thing.

In the end, I liked this book, it was an enjoyable romp. I look forward to further outings with Mr. Guerrier's books!