Alien Bodies is by Lawrence Miles, who has a reputation for taking the Doctor Who universe and pushing it to its limits. This is his first book for BBC.
This is a very important book.
This is the book that gave the BBC line a direction, a sort of underlying plot thread that would last all the way up to The Ancestor Cell. It gave a focus and breadth to the books that had been lacking. Which all means, that, yes, this is an essential read. But is it any good?
Well, in my opinion, yes.
Characterisation is well-done. The reader really gets a sense of McGann's Doctor. I never really felt that I was reading Baker or Davison or Pertwee. I was reading the eighth Doctor. Bravo on that. Sam was good too, for once. Not only was she not irritating, but she was actually enjoyable. That's impressive.
The supporting cast was excellent. The back stories that Miles provides for all the characters fleshes them out and gives them motivation. As such, they become more than mere two-dimensional characters, but rather living people. Very well done. Well, with the exception of the Krotons, who, while they do go far beyond their television appearance, are now shouting, evil, dangerous monsters. And yet, even they get some additional background, adding to the reader's perception of the race.
The setting was great. The idea of a city out of sync with time has admittedly been done before, but it's used to good effect here. The descriptions of the ziggurat are lovely, especially the continual little reference to Quixotl getting his sums a little off, and making everything look the way it might look in Hollywood, rather than in real life. The Faction shrine also gets particularly fine descriptions. I particularly liked the idea of skulls in place of roundels. It would be great to see that on television. Oh, and Marie foreshadows Compassion in the later books (starting with Interference, although really not until The Shadows of Avalon).
The plot is simplistic. People from all over space and time (mainly associated with Time Lords, apparently) arrive to bid on the Relic, which is the body of a famous person. Each race wants to use the Relic as a weapon against their enemies. The Time Lords want it so that they can use its biodata to obtain secrets erased by the enemy. Faction Paradox want it so they can use the biodata for their own means. Chaos ensues as the Doctor arrives. But there's so much more going on here than just that.
This is the first book to introduce two major ongoing plot strands: Faction Paradox, and the Future War of the Time Lords. Faction Paradox is a sort of voodoo Time Lord cult who worship paradoxes - anathema to a time-traveling species. They have many rituals, and they come across as an intriguing people. But the main focus is the Future War. Apparently, at some point in the Doctor's future, the Time Lords will become involved in a war with an enemy who also possess time travel capability. And what's more, the Time Lords will be losing. It's a really cool concept.
Oh yeah, and Alien Bodies introduces the Celestis, Time Lords who have transformed themselves into ideas and live in their own little universe, similar to the Matrix on Gallifrey.
The real star of Alien Bodies is Lawrence Miles himself. His writing style is superb. The words just flow, and it's a blast to read. It's a quirky style, one that I personally really enjoy, because it's not just A to B to C. It's more like A to B to Z to F to C. There are often little asides to the reader, and little side stories that don't add anything to the plot, but instead are just fun. Just wonderful.
So, in the final analysis, Alien Bodies is not only a fabulous novel, but an ambitious one as well. This, along with The Burning, is one of the novels I'd most like to see filmed. Simply wonderful. 9/10
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