Can the best Doctor Who stories be summed up with one question?
Can an impossible man and an ineffectual milquetoast coexist in a backwater prison on an asteroid without driving each other crazy?
Best moment for old-school Who?
Well..if you're a fan of the years when Phillip Hinchcliff and Robert Holmes were running the show, pitting the Doctor against sadistic characters in bleak confrontations, this one is for you. The one twist is that Bentley, the irredeemable head prison guard, is a woman. She remains unlikable all the way through her demise...which might be the one likable thing about her - that she gets some comeuppance in the end.
Best new thing?
A new sonic screwdriver! The Sonic Spoon! That's right - while in prison, The Doctor cobbles together a new sonic built around a spoon. There are Doctor Who utensils modeled after the sonic screwdriver that are available at retail, so it's possible that the author has a set at home and got the idea while eating fish fingers & custard while watching Peter Capaldi swordfighting with a tablespoon in Robot of Sherwood, then gazing at the sonic screwdriver-shaped handle of the spoon and saying, "Why not?"
They'd never have gotten away with that in the 20th century...
The Twelfth Doctor gets beaten up a LOT. This book is essentially a grim prison story, offering no new twists, aside from the lower-ranking guards being robot "caretakers", who reminded me of the Sheriff of Notingham's robots in Sherwood. There are plenty of bright spots - Clara's visits to the prison, the Doctor's ability to easily escape from his cell whenever he feels like it, the Garfield book the Doctor checks out of the prison library - I like that stuff, but I imagine Goss thought Peter Capaldi's tenure would be dour, so he envisioned a dour scenario, when in actuality, The Twelfth Doctor's adventures have felt more like classic Who than any episodes of the Matt Smith era. The darker approach to the series has been there, but at most, it's atypical of a family-friendly adventure series that managed to stay light in the shade.
Hooray for Jackie Tyler - best guest moment?
The Doctor's rapport with Lafcardio, the de facto prison librarian over the assortment of books kept in the library. The moment includes a subtle nod to River Song when the Doctor glances at a copy of Moll Flanders - which Alex Kingston starred in when it was adapted for television!
The 'I love me Nan'...' moment?
I think we're supposed to gain sympathy for the Governor - the warden of the prison - as the book goes on, in part because he's narrating this adventure...but I didn't. I found him too complacent to be interesting..and the build-up to his "redemption" of sorts at the end feels perfunctory than genuine. I found it more likely the Doctor would prefer to have been in far more control than is displayed, particularly after the denouement unveiling the nature of the prison and the role the Governor plays there. Episodes like Time Heist and Flatline show The Twelfth Doctor is a man of action who prefers to hold as many cards as possible; and when he's in over his head, Clara steps up to the plate to show what she has learned, but we don't see that here; that's the downside of writing a tie-in anticipating the execution of a TV series that had not aired yet.
The twists at the end: The Governor is actually a politician exiled to the asteroid, with all of the prisoners made up of his subservients and Bentley the guard was the true authority figure; the Governor hates the Doctor because he's responsible for his being there; Bentley despises the Doctor even more for having to endure the Governor as her boss - all of this is supposed to be the aftermath of a much larger adventure that's barely told in snippets of conversation in the final third of the novel; if I thought the events of Silhouette - the previous Doctor Who novel I reviewed - pastiched too many familiar twists and turns from episodes of the show..this book tries too hard to pastiche the climaxes of Steven Moffat's scripts, in which things are not as they seem, but play out as if they are, regardless. At the end of the day, this book is about The Doctor trying to persuade a guy to change his mind...in a way that this Doctor would not go along with.
The Judge - the monster responsible for killing the inmates and guards at the prison, is a massive robot that upgrades itself by consuming people and machinery..kind of a morbidly obese Cyberman, I think.
Where was I?
The episodes "Mummy On The Orient Express" and "Flatline" had just aired. Blood Cell had been a quick read - Goss got the dialogue of Twelve and Clara right, so the adventure sounded authentic, but the supporting characters were too opaque to tolerate, and he needed to play off the twists much sooner to keep the book entertaining. Once it's revealed who the players really are, you wonder why was it so hard for the Doctor to persuade them to rebel from it other than for the author to play off a formula? And what the heck was the Oracle character about? That subplot felt like something that was supposed to have a payoff, but didn't.
Singlemost fabulous thing?
It's hard to top the sonic spoon, especially because it reminded me of the lightsaber spoons that came in boxes of Kellogg's breakfast cereals to tie-in with Star Wars Episode 3: Revenge of The Sith...I'll say it's the scene where Clara presents a birthday cake for the Governor to pass along to the Doctor...with the Doctor's sonic screwdriver as the candle.