How accessible is The Quality of Leadership to Doctor Who newbies?
That’s a question brought up in USF’s first review of the Doctor Who: Short Trips anthology The Quality of Leadership, on the basis that people who usually don’t read Doctor Who literature might pick this up because of the unusual list of authors. So why not let a relative newcomer to Who – who has shown interest in the book exactly because of the roster of authors – write an article about his experiences when reading the book? As you may have guessed already, this Who newbie is me.
Many of the authors in this book have a history in Star Trek literature, my “home field” when it comes to reviewing books, so this Doctor Who anthology naturally raised my interest. But of course, I immediately had my doubts, too: will my limited Doctor Who knowledge really be enough to understand and enjoy the stories? I have only seen the new Who series with Christopher Eccleston so far, and my only venture into Who literature was to download and read a free eBook version of Nightshade. But after some consideration, I decided that I would just make the leap into the unknown and read the book, a decision mainly fueled by the fact that some of my favourite authors are on the table of contents of The Quality of Leadership.
After a short introduction editor Keith R.A. DeCandido, the anthology starts with the first part of the framing story, From Little Acorns…, written by John S. Drew. It’s a solid story, and it adequately does what a framing story is supposed to do: set up a stage for the stories still to come in the anthology. The part about the King’s first meeting with the Doctor isn’t overly original, but is written in a lighthearted, engaging way, so that it ultimately is a nice enough opener to the anthology.
In One Fateful Knight by Peter David, we see the Eighth Doctor sucked into the Arthurian legend. Anyone familiar with David’s track record should be unsurprised that Arthur is his chosen leader. Arthur, or at least elements from his legend, were often parts of his works, most prominently in his “modern day Arthur” novels. So it’s no surprise that he is well-versed in the legend and is able to change it in a way that it still is recognisable, but also very fitting for an intervention by the Doctor. His writing style is very fitting for Doctor Who, at least from my limited perspective. His usual humour is always shining through, but at the same time he is able to tell an interesting story, setting an early little highlight in the anthology.
But it’s also the first time where a Who newbie could get lost, since there are parts of the story – especially at the end, but also little details throughout – that make clear that this is a sort of prequel or sequel to another story. It’s nothing that diminished my enjoyment of the story, but it certainly was a bit irritating to not know what these scenes were referring to.
Next up is Una McCormack’s The Slave War, where the Doctor and his companions are sucked into Spartacus’s war against the Romans. Despite not actually knowing anything about the companions I quite enjoyed some of the banter and dialogue between them, and the character work is the biggest strength of this story. Of course I can say nothing about how well Una McCormack has captured the known characters, but what I can say is that she was able to make the reader care about and/or get interested in almost all of the characters featured in the story. The story itself is okay, but lacks some surprises to be anything more than that. This story has no real “I’m sure there’s a reference/in-joke to another Who story in here” moments, but the chemistry between the companions is so good that I actually wanted to learn more about them.
Diane Duane penned the next story, Goths and Robbers, which features the Fifth Doctor and the companions Nyssa and Tegan, and is the first little disappointment of the anthology. It’s not really bad, but there is nothing really exceptional either. The story definitely isn’t boring, but it doesn’t really have the reader on the edge of their seat, either. It’s one of those stories that just ripple along, where every piece falls into place one after the other without really creating much interest. Most of the characters remained rather uninteresting for me, too – with the exception of one or two, none of them really made me want to know more about them.
On the accessibility front, this story doesn’t really has anything in it where I would say special Who knowledge was necessary, although I can only guess that all the stuff about pasta sauce and being hungry was some kind of running gag, which I might had enjoyed more if I knew more about it.
Good Queen, Bad Queen, I Queen, You Queen by Terri Osborne is the fifth story of the anthology, in which our protagonists meet Queen Boudicca, and it’s a very good story. One thing I knew before reading the anthology was, that Romana I is the favourite Who character of Terri Osborne, and to say that her love for the character is showing would be a huge understatement – it’s almost literally bleeding from the pages. Certainly Romana is running the show in this story, it’s almost as if the Doctor is the companion, since he is little more than a supporting character. But that’s not a bad thing, because Terri Osborne was able to portray her in an interesting light, so that you almost forget there is still a character named the Doctor around, and that he’s supposed to be the main character of the series. While the story is very Romana-centric, in scenes that involve other characters the author was able to make them interesting figures who are carrying the story forward.
The story is engaging throughout, culminating in a surprise twist in the end. I had some suspicions very early on that something odd was going on, but I certainly didn’t see that coming. Connected with the surprise is the only major point in this story where I’m not sure if my lack of Who knowledge is actually lessening the impact of it a bit, but I’ll not go into detail here, since I don’t want to spoil the twist.
Richard C. White wrote The Price of Conviction, a First Doctor story, where he and his granddaughter are sucked into the trial against Martin Luther. It’s a rather boring story. The plot is contrived and remains very stale and predictable almost throughout the entire story. Even some very good scenes like Susan’s discussion with Luther about the reasons why he is questioning the church are only short-lived highlights, unable to rescue the story for long. The only character who really does anything for me is Susan, the rest remains one-dimensional and uninteresting. Even the “leader” in this story, Luther, only is able to become a bit interesting when he has Susan as his counterpart. The weakest story in the anthology up to this point, but at least it isn’t demanding any intimate Who knowledge.
Next up is Linnea Dodson’s Fifth Doctor story God Send Me Well to Keep, featuring Nyssa, where they have to rescue the timeline after Henry VIII seems to fall in love with the wrong woman. It’s a very solid story. While nothing in it is really exceptional, it’s a fun little tale nonetheless. And considering that this is Dodson’s fiction debut, I would say it’s a positive surprise how well she is able cover the basics: her writing style has a good flow, her way of integrating the Doctor and Nyssa into history is sound and her character work is solid. One of her biggest strengths in this story was her ability to really bring a feeling for the time and surroundings that the story was set in onto the page. Reading this story, I certainly see some potential in her and would be willing to bet that this isn’t her last published fictional work.
Peaceable Kingdom by Steven Savile, one of the few stories in this anthology not taking place on Earth, is rather weak story. Beside the fact that it is not overly interesting or thought-provoking, there either is a big logical flaw in the story, or the author wasn’t able to make the finer points clear to the reader. In the course of the story it is revealed that the Kortani have a hive mind, the Doctor even says/thinks at one point something along the lines of “If I’m able to warn one of them, I warn the whole species”, so why do they even suspect the Doctor has killed their young ones? Shouldn’t they know who really was responsible, especially since he has killed several and obviously had to touch them to do so, thereby having to reveal himself to the victims? Like I said either there is a logical flaw in the story or Steven Savile wasn’t able to give readers all the details they need to understand the story correctly.
But I’m not sure I really would have enjoyed the story more even without those discrepancies, since the whole setting of having the Doctor all on his own isn’t really appealing to me. If there isn’t a companion, there at least should be an interesting character he can play off, but such a character is missing here, the “bad guy” here really has little more depth than a moustache-twirling villain in my opinion. It’s the weakest story so far and one of the stories which left me with the feeling that there is a connection to an earlier story, based on the conviction of the Doctor at the end that he will encounter the Kortani again.
In Rock Star, a story by Robert T. Jeschonek, the Third Doctor and Jo visit a music festival on the planet Rishik, which is soon disrupted by strong earthquakes. There are certainly some nice ideas in this story, and the writing is very solid, but I have to admit the characters weren’t really very engaging and left me unimpressed for the most part. For lack of a better word they appeared to be a bit bored, and they certainly weren’t a fountain of high sprits. That would be okay if this was a dark gritty story, but since it’s more of a lively story, they seem to be a bit out of place. It’s kind of sad that Jeschonek’s character work isn’t really on par with the rest of his writing skills in this story since it really had much potential in it, and could have been more than the mildly entertaining filler it is now.
Next up is the second story from the David household, On a Pedestal, written by Kathleen O. David. In it the Second Doctor, Jamie and Victoria, travel to Scotland and meet Jamie’s hero William Wallace, and it’s a good story. That the two companions were arguing about Wallace before they even knew what their next stop would be feels a bit constructed, but I guess you could explain that with the telepathic abilities of the TARDIS. Other than that, On a Pedestal is a flawlessly told story, with very good character work and a nice flow. The story nicely shows that legends often aren’t exactly like they are told afterwards, and both sides, people who glorify a legendary person and those who demonise them have to adjust their estimation when meeting the real deal. Wallace is skillfully depicted as a likable young hothead who already shows some signs of the leader he will become, thus showing Jamie that he isn’t the flawless hero he made him out to be, but neither is he the villain and rogue Victoria saw in him prior to their encounter. In her fiction debut, Kathleen O. David shows a high degree of writing skill, which puts her on a par with the more experienced writers, and I certainly would like to read more from her.
James Swallow chose a rather unusual setting for his seventh Doctor story Clean-Up on Aisle Two: an unimportant store in America, where Randall, the night-shift manager, is forced to reevaluate his beliefs about leadership skills. It’s another story where the Seventh Doctor travels alone, but in contrast to Steven Savile’s story this one doesn’t really suffer under the lack of a companion. The Doctor is more of a bystander and only functions as some kind of catalyst, while Randall is the real centerpiece of the story, and thus a companion for the doctor isn’t really necessary. Swallow ably leads both Randall and the reader through the story and to the realisation that true leadership demands more than just to bark orders or some mouse-clicks at the computer.
Within the constraints of a short story the author was able to tell the story of a young man finally getting a grip of what’s really important and makes the readers care for the protagonist in the process. Clean-Up is another good story and like the last few stories doesn’t really seem to demand any special knowledge about the series.
The last “full” story is The Spindle of Necessity, written by Allyn Gibson. Once again, Gibson brings a very different story to an anthology, as he did with his rather unusual story in the Star Trek anthology Constellations. And he does so really well – he is able to use the unusual style for modern prose in a very skillful manner and makes it work very well. I really liked it, but sadly this is really the only story where I really felt that I was missing a good chunk of the story behind the story so to speak, because I have no knowledge of the background of the Doctor’s fear of the future beyond the little he reveals in the story. I have to admit not having the full picture really diminished my enjoyment of the story quite a bit, since I didn’t really knew enough about what made the Doctor tick during this story. But it still is a nice, insightful story, and I think anyone with more knowledge about the events leading to the state of mind the Doctor is in, will find this story a bigger highlight than it was for me.
John S. Drew’s epilogue wraps up the anthology, keeping it simple and not only gives his opening story a nice and fitting end, but with the combination of his both stories he also gives the whole anthology a frame that is actually working rather well and gives it a bigger meaning than just that of a collection of stories. They might not be the highlights of the anthology, but they do very well what they were written for: leading the reader into the narrative(s) of the anthology and giving them a proper send off.
Over all, The Quality of Leadership is a strong anthology, with some weaknesses in the middle, but those are easily overshadowed by all the little gems like One Fateful Knight, Good Queen, Bad Queen, I Queen, You Queen, and On a Pedestal. And while those are the strongest, maybe with the exception of two stories, all the stories bring something interesting to the table.
So now you know my opinion about the anthology, but where does that leave us in regard to the hypothesis that “non-Who fans who choose to pick up the book due to the involvement of so many Star Trek authors may find themselves rather lost”?
Did I felt lost when reading the anthology? Actually, yes, but only on one occasion: in Allyn Gibson’s story when it came to the Doctor’s state of mind and immediate backstory. While there is some explanation in the story itself, I felt that the story only fully works when you know the whole story and can empathise with the Doctor more. There were other occasions where I noticed that there were very direct references to previous stories, like in Peter David’s story or where I assumed there were some, but it really didn’t had an impact of my enjoyment of the various stories like it did with The Spindle of Necessity.
Do I think that, in addition, there were dozens of in-jokes and references that flew totally over my head unnoticed? Sure. But does that really make the book inaccessible for me? I would say no.
To use an analogy: It’s a bit like when you go to a restaurant for dinner, and you enjoy the meal very much. After the last course, the chef comes out and apologises to you, because your meal was lacking an ingredient. Does that change the fact that you were perfectly content with the meal? Does that fact make the meal uneatable for you? I don’t think so, and it’s similar here: I really liked the anthology and enjoyed the stories despite the fact that I’m fully aware that it might have been even more enjoyable if I was aware of all the nuances of the Who universe this book might has a connection to.
And maybe I’m even more inclined to reread the book once my Doctor Who knowledge is large enough to get those nuances, find new things to enjoy and see the stories in a whole new light, something the average Who fan who got everything the first time around can’t really experience.
So my final comment to my fellow Who newbies out there, unsure if they should read the book just because they like previous works of the authors: Make the leap of faith, get the book and read it. You won’t really get lost and you certainly won’t be disappointed.
The Quality of Leadership (edited by Keith R.A. DeCandido) was released by Big Finish Productions in May 2008.