Tuesday, 29 September 2015

New Series Adventures Novel Audiobook 08: The Feast of the Drowned written by Stephen Cole and read by David Tennant (April 2006)

Here’s an interesting thing about The Feast of the Drowned – Stephen Cole’s brilliantly-titled but ultimately pedestrian novel is improved considerably by David Tennant’s narration. His Scottish lilt lends a lovely sense of doom and unease to proceedings, but with an excellent sense of when to soften things up on quiet little moments. The opening, in which a young sailor flounders about on the HMS Ascendant (oh, the irony, I’m splitting my sides!) as it sinks into the freezing waters of the North Sea, is particularly gripping. Tennant really lays on the creepy suspense, and the lurid, grotesque imagery creeps vividly into the listener’s head. Tennant can make even the mundane parts sound rather exciting. He brings heightened energy to his reading throughout, unsurprisingly particularly with the Doctor’s lines (I’m not fond of his renditions of Rose Tyler and Mickey Smith, which are decent enough efforts, but just sound so mopey and such like stereotypes of council-estate inhabitants that it’s not particularly fun to listen to). But he does a marvellous job with the guest characters: distressed old Scottish lady Anne (who gets a very bleak fate), Liaison Officer Vida Swann, and particularly the dry, spindly voice of Rear Admiral John Crayshaw. His whispered rendering of the Waterhive Queen is another highlight.

The story itself is pretty subpar, though, and since the actual idea behind the book is reasonably good its failings are mostly down to the relatively clunky writing. Back when I was first reading the NSAs, I never particularly remembered rating Stephen Cole’s books as being elegant – they were more notable for their good, cracking premises or for being fun run-arounds. The elegance of his EDA Vanishing Point, written a few years before this, is nowhere to be seen, and all of that novel’s worst background tendencies toward action-movie generics are here in the foreground. Part of the poor writing, I think, comes from the preponderance of Russell T Davies’ more grounded, naturalistic, working-class characters, who are beautifully written when they’re written well, but sadly become a dumping ground for poor Cole lines like “She was one of Rose’s old clubbing crowd – wildest and loudest and craziest of the lot.” It’s all so faux-pally, so faux-soapy, so boys’ own adventure (“The Doctor wore a proper boy’s smile”; his silly attempts to chat up Vida) and desperate to seem bang up to the minute.

And it’s not just that which irks. Clichés like “There was a red warning glow somewhere, like he was being dragged into hell” are littered all over the place. Tennant’s Doctor is written to be his most cheeky-chappy bland. Most damningly, this feels like it’s chugging alongside the New Series, rather than sailing away to forge its own path. It’s very, very Series 2, all big events in the middle of London and “domestic” scenes, although it has a few roots in the Pertwee era too. Weirdly, a lot of what it does here – phantom ghosts appear to their loved ones in order to manipulate them; disaster movies on ships – is stuff the TV show was about to do soon (Army of Ghosts/Doomsday; Voyage of the Damned), but this still doesn’t particularly make it feel prescient.

However, Cole does do a few good things with the New Series staples. Having someone from back home dying in mysterious circumstances – even if they’re a new character who hasn’t been introduced before now – does land the contemporary alien invasion slightly closer to Rose in a way the TV show hasn’t really done by the start of Series 2 (there’s Father’s Day, of course, but she knows her father is dead in that, so there’s less of a sense of surprise). The water-based monsters, the Waterhive, aren’t phenomenal, and they’re rather underexplored, but they’re still something of a new series innovation (we don’t get something like this until The Waters of Mars) and some of the creepy moments with them do work nicely (those bloated, blotchy faces, those mother-of-pearl eyes). It has a stab at The Curse of Fenric-style emotional manipulation, too, although with limited success, and it never comes across as quite as brooding as it wants to be, in part due to the author’s penchant for pulpy action and putting Rose in a boring damsel-in-distress situation in which she has alien eggs planted in her (sigh it’s Philip Martin all over again sigh).

So, no, it’s not a particularly successful novel – even in this abridged audiobook version, it’s treading water a lot of the time in comparison to the fast-paced, zippy new series, and the initial promise rather runs out of steam, all puns intended. I can’t complain given I got this for free, and Tennant’s reading of it is a good listen, it’s true, but I suspect it would have been more fun on television, with cool set pieces and Graeme Harper’s direction. I suspect it was a lot more fun when I was ten years old. But as it is, there’s just not a lot in it that I find new or interesting, and I can’t in all honesty recommend this when life is short and there’s a lot of Doctor Who out there.

Other things:
“You know, chips have never tasted the same since they stopped wrapping them in newspaper.” You’re a time traveller, Doctor. Think about it. Please use your brain.
“Jay came back.”/“This could be serious. I only got enough chips for three.”
Bad line alert #1: “How come you know so much about [this huge naval ship]?”/“I’m a boy. It’s genetic.”
Bad line alert #2: “Take me to your Vida!”
The Norfolk running gag (where the Doctor mixes up the fen-filled one with the Norfolk in Virginia) is a good one, and I also like the way Crayshaw refers to the North Sea as the “German Ocean… as once that body of water was known”.
“Ah again. Part two of the previous ah.”
“But there was only the ghost of Jay, stood between the samosas and the dog-eared birthday cards. ‘Help me, Rose. Come to me, before the feast.’” Brrr, possibly the novel’s finest mix of the mundane and the eerie.
Bad line alert #3: “H₂Omigod!”
Thankfully, this audiobook abridgement cuts out the rather dull “Did Mickey cheat on Rose?” subplot.
“How are we supposed to know what a puddle wants to do with its life?” This probably isn’t a nod to Douglas Adams’ famous maxim, but if it is, I approve.
Despite what I said about the writing, “scabrous” is a bloody lovely word.
“We trust the people we love to tell the truth. We trust them not to harm us.”
“…Fright Night friends”: really?
The way the Doctor defeats the Waterhive is bitterly disappointing.
“Things can never be the way they were, because we’re none of us the people we were.”
Rose and Mickey’s farewell is nicely poignant.
I’d have rather seen a story exploring the erratic madman on the estate – Old Scarey – quoting bits of old poetry like “many waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown it”.

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