The Doomsday Manuscript
by Justin Richards
It comes as something of a surprise that Justin Richards wrote the most
number of the original Virgin Benny New Adventures. Away from the big name
("Walking to Babylon", "Dead Romance", "Oh No It Isn't!", ...) or a distinctive style (Dave Stone), he contributed several solid novels to the range, including the second and the second to last—not to forget the jewel in the crown that was "Tears of the Oracle". (Oh, I can go on for hours about "Tears...": a book written in such a hurry, yet so wonderful. It gives the impression that Richards didn't know how the book even ended until he was a few chapters in, and yet the story all comes together with one of the richest and most sophisticated explorations of themes in a Who/Who-related novel ever.) Richards is perhaps then an obvious choice for Big Finish's second Benny book (and first novel).
"The Doomsday Manuscript" can be considered in three parts. The first third is an introduction, more to the new Big Finish setting than to the novel itself. Here, Richards competently does what needs to be done, although I will discuss my reservations about the wider setting below. The middle third (chapters 3-6) comes across as filler, a series of disconnected and disappointing japes. I'm afraid this is some of Richards' worst writing ever. The last third is what might be viewed as the actual plot and is the best.
Richards carefully introduces Benny's new setting, which he credits in a post-script to the range editors Gary Russell and Jac Rayner. A solid foundation for Big Finish's line is a worthwhile endeavour and something I criticised "The Dead Men Diaries" for lacking, but I think Benny's new world is one that is too safe and comfortable. The result is a slow, if pleasant, beginning to the book as Richards describes the surrounds and then has to lever Benny out of them and into the plot. That setting then has no relevance to the subsequent plot.
The background environment has similarities with the launch of the Benny New Adventures in "Oh No It Isn't!", yet I feel the re-launch of the line in "Where Angels Fear" was more successful because it replaced the familiar with the dangerous. (The implied re-launch at the end of "Twilight of the Gods" seeming to lie in between the two approaches.) The early Virgin Benny books were full of contrived reasons to get Benny away from Dellah and into the stories, with some of the better ones being able to introduce a more compelling threat within the university campus. After "Where Angels Fear", I felt there was a greater momentum to the books. "The Doomsday Manuscript" and "The Dead Men Diaries" place Benny into an even cosier environment than Dellah.
Richards goes overboard with the continuity in "The Doomsday Manuscript", re-introducing Joseph (explaining an apparent continuity glitch in "The Dead Men Diaries") and including Jason. This is something of an archetypal Benny book in its ingredients, as one might expect from the author of the largest number of prior Benny books. It is a safe approach to the first novel of a new series, but perhaps the best Virgin Benny books were those that went beyond the usual trappings: "Walking to Babylon", "Dead Romance", "Tears of the Oracle", "Down"... To compare "The Doomsday Manuscript" to Richards' Who work, this is the familiar pastiche of "Grave Matter" rather than the brave re-launch of "The Burning".
I also think the continued involvement of Jason is a mistake in the Big Finish Benny series, as I think it was right to split Benny and Jason in the last Who NAs before the Virgin Benny series began. Jason and Benny feel now like Angel and Buffy at the end of season 3 of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer": how many times can we do the same story? "Buffy..." season 4 removed the relationship, allowing for new developments in Buffy's romantic life. Benny needs the same, or else we have this implausible contrast between Benny's ongoing love for Jason claimed here and her many flirtations in "The Dead Men Diaries".
I'm not against the character of Jason per se: "Buffy..." gave Angel a spin-off series and, likewise, I think there is room in a Benny series for Jason stories (as with "Deadfall"). I also think Jason can be a useful source of disruption in Benny's overly cosy life—but not of romantic disruption. Benny, after all, is a modern heroine and remaining friends with exes—having a soft spot for them despite the troubles they may cause—is a feature of modern life many of us recognise!
While the introduction to "The Doomsday Manuscript" was quite readable, it seemed to be getting in the way of the story. I was eager to get on, something I was soon to regret! The book goes downhill for its middle chapters. Chapter 4, for example, looks like an old short story simply slotted in to make up the word count. It includes one of Richards' trademark plays on art versus reality, but shows little thematic connection to the rest of the story. The book tries to cast the character of Straklant as the hero in these middle chapters while simultaneously undermining him as the chief villain. The mix is uneasy. Benny goes along with far too much violence. Infodumps abound.
As with "The
the book is hampered by a plot that requires Benny to be very stupid and
deeply unobservant about what (the reader knows) is going on. Further discussion,
however, requires plot spoilers...
Benny is taken in by Straklant yet, eventually, quite unannoyed to discover she has been taken in. Other events are equally implausible, like the escapades of chapter 6. Despite Benny's supposed burning love for Jason, when his presence in the novel turns out to be nothing more than an implausible plot device, Benny seems not to care a toss. Where is the careful emotional writing we had in "Tears of the Oracle"?
You could excise the middle sections with ease. The introduction, while serving a purpose for the range, is inessential to this story. Really, "The Doomsday Manuscript" is a novella beginning with chapter 7. This last third is good ol' Richards with a "Dreams of Empire"/"The Joy Device"-style story. There's the usual fiendish plot twists, so unfortunately you need to have paid attention through all the preceding filler for the handful of crucial clues therein.
Again sticking to convention, Benny faces an archaeological mystery, but how many times can an ancient artefact turn out to be a superweapon? While not a staggeringly new story, Richards' prose is competent here and at least the last page shows the sort of subtle wit of which he is capable.
There's a good book struggling to escape from Big Finish's first two Benny publications, but there's another book of incompetent pap mixed in there too. In the end, I'm afraid I think you're better off re-reading "Tears of the Oracle" than bothering with "The Doomsday Manuscript".
Henry Potts, 4 Mar 2001; updated 19 Feb 2006
Originally posted to Jade Pagoda.
Return to Main Page.