Fearful Symmetries

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15 May, 2013

Doctor Who: Business Unusual by Gary Russell



I made the mistake of reading Business Unusual at the same time as I was listening to The Wrong Doctors by Big Finish which meant that I was consuming two stories at the same time both of which attempted to explain how Mel ended up traveling with The Doctor. It was confusing for a stretch as I kept thinking about Mel going to a play rehearsal while reading the book and wondering when The Doctor was going to head to SenéNet whilst listening to the audio drama.

Business Unusual begins with the rather gruesome death of Robert McLaughlin at the maw of a mutant dog of some kind which drools green saliva and has green eyes. McLaughlin was a member of C19, a Torchwood-like outfit, and his assignment was to investigate the technology company SenéNet. Next thing we know The Brigadier is doing the same thing. While spared the fate of being eaten by a mutant dog, he is taken prisoner.

Meanwhile The Doctor is helping out the Brighton constabulary by mopping up a mess that The Master had made in their computer system. While out and about he sees Mel from afar and does all he can to avoid her lest she become his traveling companion. If this is allowed to happen, he would move ever closer towards his own fate as The Valeyard. Time has a way of smoothing out changes made to it and of course our hero ends up meeting Mel. The Doctor runs into Trey Korte, an exchange student staying with Mel's family. Trey has some latent psychic powers which are discovered by the villains and this catches the attention of The Doctor. He is unable to avoid Mel at this point.

Together they take on SenéNet which is headed by a man named Townsend. He has stolen various bits of alien technology from C19 and appropriating them for his own ends. He had previously augmented his body with that technology but it is now showing its age and he seeks to upgrade his mortal coil. In Townsend's employ are the Irish twins Cellian and Ciara. I read afterwards that all three appeared in Russell's The Scales of Injustice, a Third Doctor novel but, not having read it, I cannot judge how well or interesting these characters develop.

The story here is reminiscent of The Green Death with the mysterious corporation and its equally mysterious CEO. But what makes Business Unusual different is how Russell gets into the heads of the supporting cast. Erskine is a former member of UNIT under Lethbridge-Stewart who was left for dead in one of the group's battles with invading aliens. As he seeks revenge against those who abandoned him and took his life away, The Brigadier contemplates the responsibilities of his job as well as the drastic consequences his decisions have at the human level. Cellian and Ciara had their minds manipulated by Townsend and are ruthless killers for most of the book but they eventually find what's left of their humanity.

In the books introduction Russell notes that he wanted to write a story that he "thought Colin Baker would have liked to be in". To this end I think he was mostly successful. While Mel and The Doctor bicker at first, they do settle in fairly quickly and develop a warm relationship. This is the kinder, gentler Doctor we saw in The Mysterious Planet and later in the Big Finish audios. His gaudy attire is remarked upon more than once plus it is revealed that he's a Pink Floyd fan:

Alan switched on the car stereo system, which included a CD player, and Mel automatically selected her father’s favourite Pink Floyd album.
‘Ah, Piper,’ murmured the Doctor. ‘Syd’s greatest hour.’

There is, however, a scene out of character for The Doctor. Part of Townsend's plan has a couple dozen or so kids turned into zombies attached to computers. In one scene as his scheme is being foiled by The Doctor, our hero seems to care little about their horrible fate. Indeed, other children also have horrendous things happen to them which Russell describes in heartbreaking detail.

A lot of Business Unusual is boilerplate Doctor Who but it is a very fun story. The Doctor-Brigadier combination was nice but it they are separated for most of the book so it was a bit of a letdown. What sets it apart is the way Russell treats the minor characters and gets into their heads and fleshes out their motivations and has them gradually change.

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|| Palmer, 1:55 PM

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