SPOILERS! SPOILERS! SPOILERS!
Conundrum is my second New Adventures novel. Normally I am quite a fan of Steve Lyons; his audio writing for Big Finish has consistently been among the best. However, I have to say I was quite disappointed. Perhaps I would have been less so if Jamie hadn’t built the book up so high and sort of revealed the “wheeze.” Plus, I hate the cover.
Some of the problems that bothered me about Legacy were also to be found in Conundrum. I know it will sound pretentious for me to call it this, and it’s such an ephemeral term, but I am really getting fed up with writing that is too clever for its own good. As such—and I may get pilloried for this—I think the fans killed Doctor Who in 1989. If you can judge the way it was going onscreen by the way it was channelled in the New Adventures, it was becoming a fan’s playground, a continuity fanwank that was really up its own bum. I bet the same fans who hated the bickering team of Fifth Doctor, Tegan, Adric, and Nyssa loved to read Conundrum’s vicious trio of the Seventh Doctor, a selfish/bitchy Ace, and a directionless Benny. For me, personally, reading about them wasn’t any fun at all. Nor did it feel like real characterization, either. It reminded me of the first series of Torchwood, where the characters were paint-by-number, filled in with broad strokes rather than the nuance of character-driven, narrative-driven drama.
What do I think is too clever for its own good? The whole conceit of this book is that the village of Arandale is a fictional construct (much as the train-world was in Ian Potter’s story). When we find out who the author (ie the Master of the Land of Fiction) is, we understand why he’s chosen the varieties of pop culture genres to populate his Arandale: a hard-boiled American PI; too-good-to-be-true pre-teen investigators; a snowy English village with a pub; a witch; a crumbling supernatural castle; sacrifice; a psychic investigator; a game-geek; etc. However, there is a great deal of cliché inherent in such forms (nearly all have been used in Doctor Who before). What annoyed me is that the author (the real author, Steve Lyons) could blame any bad writing on it being the fault of the author (the Master). There’s no incentive, then, to work hard to create depth or keep up a narrative. If there’s no incentive to writing convincingly, why should we care? I can’t say I cared much about any of the “characters” in this “story.”
Had I guessed that Arandale was the Land of Fiction from “The Mind Robber”? Does it even really matter? I had gotten halfway through the book when I thought to myself, “Hmm, this sound suspiciously like ‘The Mind Robber.’” The final reveal, therefore, wasn’t really powerful. Admittedly, I don’t know who is pulling the strings and who wanted the Master to trap the Doctor. I’m not dying to find out, frankly.
The pacing, for the most part, was good. There were amusing moments, and moments where I actually felt some empathy for Benny, Ace, or Norman Power. But some of the time I was just bored, trying to read as fast as I could to get to the end and find out if, against all hope, there was some unexpected twist to all this. I think Conundrum, like Legacy, was a bit a product of its time. Fans then wanted a dark, manipulative Doctor; an emotionally stunted, violent, hot Ace. They wanted continuity nods, sex, violence, and “adult themes.” They wanted meta-fiction. In that case, perhaps I’m being a little unsympathetic; perhaps the trapped author at the end is really there to represent the authors of the New Adventures, not really anticipating the responsibilities and burdens of going from fan to fan-author?