When I was at primary school, I read several novelisations of TV episodes (as per the BBC article The Tome Lord), which was a handy way to catch up on episodes that I hadn't seen. (This was in the early 1980s, way before I had internet access, and we didn't have a VCR at home.) However, there were only a finite number of stories that could be novelised, so at some point the BBC started publishing original stories. The novels I bought recently were all published between 1998 and 2001: that's after the TV movie (8th Doctor) but before the relaunch in 2005 (9th Doctor). Back then, the only way you could get new Dr Who stories was to read the books (or listen to the Big Finish audiobooks); since this involved paying for them, it would only be a niche audience within a fairly small market, i.e. the "hard core" fans. The upshot was that the books developed their own strong continuity, with ongoing storylines, rather than being "throwaway" stories that had to preserve the status quo. Something similar has happened to Star Trek novels recently: now that the various TV series have finished, and the new film is in a different timeline, the books have the freedom to make changes, e.g. characters can get married or be promoted. (I'll elaborate on Trek novels in another post at some point.) This is also similar to the "shared universe" approach in comics, such as the Marvel Universe (where Spider-Man and the X-Men live).
Continuity is good, if it means that you can avoid glaring contradictions between different stories. It's also good if you read all the stories in question, since it allows a much bigger storyline. However, it can be tricky if you don't read all the stories, so it's worth considering whether you're really part of the target audience. For instance, I watched all the DS9 episodes on TV, then I bought them on DVD and re-watched them, and I've read most of the books in the "relaunch" series (I'm not bang up to date, but I haven't missed any out). By contrast, I used to watch Dr Who every week when I was a kid, but I started with the 5th Doctor so I've only seen a few random episodes from the earlier incarnations. Also, even with the episodes that I have seen, it's been 20-25 years, so my memory is a bit hazy! As for the new novels, this random bunch are the first I've read, so I've had to figure out the context as I go along.
Anyway, taking the books in the order that I read them:
* "The Quantum Archangel" (Craig Hinton, 2001).
This features the 6th Doctor and Mel (Bonnie Langford), and the back cover says that it's set between "The Trial of a Time Lord" and "Time and the Rani". However, that doesn't really narrow it down too much, since the 6th Doctor regenerated at the start of "Time and the Rani" (and Colin Baker wasn't even in the episode), so what they're effectively saying is "This is one of the 6th Doctor's stories that took place during a big gap", and there are apparently several other novels set in that same period.
This book is very heavy on continuity. It's a sequel to a TV story that I haven't seen (The Time Monster), although a web search turned up this review which isn't very flattering. ("Despite a few redeeming facets here and there, the serial is mostly a mess of incomprehensible plotting, bad special effects, and corny dialogue, all with a tone that is often jarringly childish.") The Master is in this story, but he can no longer regenerate, and there are several references to the Source of Traken; doing some digging on the web, this is apparently based on events in The Keeper of Traken, another set of episodes that I haven't seen.
Still, those points are fair enough, if the writer specifically wants to use plot points that were introduced in those stories. It gets more frustrating when he clutters up the story with offhand references. For instance, at one point in the novel (pp30-31), the Doctor decides that he wants to get away from it all for a while, so he considers possible destinations. Here's one of his ideas: "Tempus Fugit, the greatest restaurant on Pella Saturnis, ice world of the Hroth... and the Doctor's home for five years. But what would Pfifl and Laklis say if they knew of the blood on his hands? Their adopted son a mass murderer?" Say what, now? I wasn't aware that the Doctor was adopted. I had a look at TARDIS (the Dr Who wiki), but that doesn't know anything about Pfifl or Laklis; if the people who run that site haven't documented these characters, they must be pretty obscure! Doing a bit more digging, I found The Crystal Bucephalus, a 5th Doctor novel written by ... Craig Hinton. Well, that would explain why he threw in a completely gratuitous reference to it, but if I have to go digging on the web to understand the story then there's something fundamentally wrong. I mentioned comics before, and Avengers Forever (by Kurt Busiek) demonstrates how to do this properly: Busiek put a bibliography at the end where he says "You shouldn't need to know any of this - but in case you're interested..." and then he cites his sources.
It gets worse when the writer decides to steal concepts from other stories (not related to Dr Who). For instance, when the Master attacks the Doctor: "The modulated beam of gravitons and Pym particles hit the Doctor squarely in the chest" (p262). In Marvel comics, Hank Pym invented Pym particles (hence the name), and he uses them to change his size, so that he can grow (Giant-Man) or shrink (Ant-Man). In this novel, there's no suggestion that the Master wanted the Doctor to change size, so it's just random gibberish but it threw me out of the story because I attach a meaning to it.
At the same time, for someone who's so keen on continuity, the writer has trouble keeping track of his own story. Part of the story involves cosmic beings (Eternals and Chronovores), and the prologue establishes that two of these beings have had a romance. "But Elektra was a god, and so was her concert. Prometheus. [...] She was of the Eternal caste: those who drifted mindlessly, seeking out other imaginations, other lives, to lead and to leach from. [...] She looked at Prometheus, radiant, magnificent... She found it hard to reconcile that with the conevant description of the Chronovores." (p2) These two have a child together, which causes a bit of conflict in their respective families. "It will be an abomination, anathema to the Ancient Covenants, protested Lilith, matriarch of the Chronovores, as she presented her petition to the Six-Fold-God. [...] And Elektra is your daughter, Matriarch." (pp253-254). So, apparently Elektra is now a Chronovore rather than an Eternal. The sad thing is that it doesn't actually make any difference to the story, which makes the whole thing rather pointless.
While I'm on the subject, the novel's title is a bit of a misnomer: the writer seems to have just chosen two words that sound cool and stuck them together. By contrast, the episode Blink does something meaningful with the concept - the aliens look like angels, and the Doctor describes them as "quantum locked". Speaking of titles, each chapter uses the name of an 80s pop song, e.g. "Holding out for a hero", which rapidly gets tiresome, because they don't really fit the actual content of the chapters. Again, I look to comics as an example of this being done right: one issue of Young Justice was titled "Sheik, Rattle, and Roll", which worked because the story involved an actual sheik (as well as being a pun on an Elvis song).
The only good thing I can say about this novel is that it offers an answer to the old question of "Why does God let bad things happen?", namely that if you choose the best possible world for everyone to live in then you're just running a puppet show. That's not a particularly new idea, but I like to see people explore it.
All in all, I can't recommend this book for anything other than rodent bedding.
* "The Shadows of Avalon" (Paul Cornell, 2000).
Quoting from the back cover: "This story marks the end of one chapter in the life of the Eighth Doctor and the beginning of a new one." It's definitely part of an ongoing storyline, since it includes companions I haven't heard of before (Compassion and Fitz), and the status quo has changed a bit, e.g. Brigadier Lethbridge-Stuart has been changed back into a young man while still retaining his lifetime's experience. However, that's all fine: the novel gave me the context I needed, so I didn't have to refer to any outside sources, and it tells a complete story by itself.
One of the stranger ideas (apparently established in previous novels) is a type of TARDIS that appears human. This does present a certain logistical challenge: even if it's bigger on the inside, how do you actually get in? It's probably best not to speculate about orifices, otherwise the conversation will rapidly go downhill! Instead, a vortex appears in front of the TARDIS so that people can enter/leave; I imagine that this would look a lot like the dimensional wormhole in Sliders.
This book does throw in a few pop-culture references, but they're handled much better. For instance, at one point the Doctor is trying to work out how to use a lift (p139). "Now, how would this activate? I've got to start thinking backwards, get rid of all the science and try to get my head round Constantine's version of magic. Erm... abracadabra? Open sesame? Izzy whizzy, let's get busy?" British readers of a certain age may recognise that last phrase: Sooty used it whenever he performed magic (relayed via Matthew Corbett), so it's being used in a similar manner here. At the same time, it's not breaking the fourth wall because it's entirely plausible that the Doctor happened to watch an episode of that on his travels, in the same way that he picked up the other two phrases. If you don't recognise the reference, it still works; after all, people understood it when Sooty used it, at which point it was original.
More recently, Cornell wrote two episodes of the TV series: Human Nature and The Family Of Blood. I thought they were both good, so I might read the book they were based on (freebie on the BBC website). He also writes for comics: I've heard good things about his Captain Britain series (although I haven't read it), and he's done a decent job with Young Avengers: Dark Reign.
* "Vanderdeken's Children" (Christopher Bulis, 1998).
This novel also features the 8th Doctor, this time with a different companion (Sam, short for Samantha). Again, it's part of an ongoing narrative, since I don't recognise her, but that's ok; it's the equivalent of a new viewer not recognising the current cast. This novel tells a complete story, which is quite interesting, although the ending is a bit disappointing. I suspect that this wasn't originally a Dr Who novel, and the Doctor got shoehorned in later, although I could be wrong.
This story involves a couple of ships that find a huge derelict craft drifting in space. Based on the picture on the front cover, this reminded me of other novels, e.g. Rendezvous with Rama (Arthur C. Clarke) or Eon (Greg Bear). Unfortunately, it doesn't really stand up to comparison with them, and I have to say that the writer isn't quite as clever as he thinks he is (thinking particularly of his time-travel logic). Early on (in chapter 3), one of the ships lowers a pod on a cable towards the derelict, and the person in the pod has to give directions for movement. The key point here is that the derelict is sufficiently massive to have its own gravitational pull (which moves around a bit), so directions have to be relative to this. Unfortunately, the writer gets a bit confused, since he only allows for four possible directions rather than six: "Up"/"Down" apparently mean either "raise/lower the cable" or "move me forward/backwards along the hull". Again, it's unfortunate that I wound up comparing this to a better work of fiction, namely Ender's Game (Orson Scott Card). "The enemy gate is down!"
Looking at my last paragraph, maybe that's the real problem here; I used to read a much wider range of fiction, so I'm getting frustrated by the limitations of media tie-ins.
* "Endgame" (Terrance Dicks, 2000).
As I recall, Terrance Dicks wrote most of the novelisations that I read at school, but this is the first time I've read one of his original stories. It's a bit more adult than his other books, with some slightly gruesome descriptions of torture, although it's no worse than an Ian Fleming novel in that regard.
The back cover doesn't identify which incarnation of the Doctor this is, and the story reminded me of The Next Doctor (the Christmas episode from 2007): I didn't recognise the Doctor from his physical description, and he has some gaps in his memory along with a TARDIS that isn't, er, fully functional. Meanwhile, he's apparently mastered the Vulcan nerve pinch. So, I assumed that this was (potentially) a future incarnation, and that all would be revealed. However, the book ended without addressing this mystery, so I had to turn to the internet again. According to the Endgame entry at the TARDIS wiki: "This is the fourth story in the Earth Arc", and it features the 8th Doctor. Also, based on separate digging, I gather that this is a sequel to Players (6th Doctor story, also written by Terrance Dicks). That's fine, but again I shouldn't have to rely on an external source for this basic information! Would it really be so hard to just stick an extra page at the start of the novel with a quick recap of the story so far? It works on TV, after all. ("Previously, on Stargate Atlantis...")
This novel is set on Earth in 1951, and it involves some real historical figures, e.g. Kim Philby. If you know a bit about 20th century history then you'll be able to predict some of the plot, which involves international espionage. Personally, I feel a bit uneasy about this, since these people lived so recently, so there could be people reading the novel who actually knew them personally. Ethically, I suppose that it shouldn't really make any difference how long ago someone lived, but I prefer not to blur fact and fiction like this.
* "Superior Beings" (Nick Walters, 2001).
This book is the simplest of the five, although I don't mean that as an insult. It involves the 5th Doctor and Peri, and it's effectively a "missing adventure", i.e. it could easily have been an episode of the TV series. They travel to an alien world, get mixed up in various goings on, then continue on their way at the end. Reading these books has made me realise that I'm really just a casual fan of the TV series (relative to others), so this is the type of story that I'm really after. The characters are well defined, and there's some decent speculation about alien life. It's not very uplifting, but I can live with that.
Anyway, I'm glad I bought these books: if nothing else, it's provided a cheap way for me to assuage my curiousity, and it gave me material for a blog post.