turbot: Perfect Tree, Armidale (Default)
[personal profile] turbot
“Planet Of Evil” has recently been shown on free-to-air in Australia for the first time in many years. Definitely one of the oddest in the Hinchcliffe/Holmes era, that story of decent plot, some dodgy acting and wonderful sets, but it is not the most obvious story I would have picked as needing a sequel. But sequel there is and it begs some questions. How does the book follow on from the original TV story? Does it suffer from sequelitis? And most importantly, is it a good read?

The answer lies in the fact that “Zeta Minor” is actually set two thousand years after “Planet Of Evil”. It begins with the Morestran Empire about to open the great Energy Tower which will solve all of their power problems and that was promised to make everyone prosperous and happy. In reality it threatens to cause a war between the Imperial establishment on one side and the all-powerful Church one the other for control. The Church has a monopoly on scientific development in what has become a very regressive culture. The Church’s doctrine is based on the original mission to the planet of anti-matter of Zeta Minor, where a tall chap with a mop of curly brown hair and long scarf called the Doctor spaketh unto Professor Sorenson to go forth and harness kinetic power of planetary movement, and leave all of the evil ant-matter crystals alone in their own universe lest the Dark Gods smite thee. Unknown to the Doctor, his remark has caused the Morestran Empire to spend two millennia gutting their empire of resources to build the huge planet-spanning Tower, under the supervisory gaze of what soon became greed masquerading as religious fanaticism.

Except someone made a small mistake with the numbers, which means the Tower is a dud. The student who discovered the error mysteriously dies, and everything is hushed up. And a short while later a mysterious spaceship lands on forbidden planet of Zeta Minor.

The set-up is breathtaking. Simon Messingham has taken a technological and political but desperate society and has regressed it over two millennia. The scope makes me wonder if Messingham likes Asimov’s “Foundation”, where a Church was also founded to shape technological development in a regressed society. But this Church is far more barbaric, and the atrocities it causes to the people it kidnaps if horrific. Here is an evil that unparalleled in many of the books. A pity that doings in the secret Church lab remain sidelined until the end.

“Zeta Major” isn’t a mystery. Everything pretty much is presented to you very early on. The TARDIS arrives in the Energy Tower through a really silly plot device; Nyssa and the Fifth Doctor are promptly attacked by anti-men while Tegan gets captured by the guards. The Doctor finds anti-matter crystals and then spends most of his time telling people that they should really return it from whence it came or else the universe might end. No one listens. Nyssa does get to do some digging but finds her answers with surprising ease and then gets turned into anti-Nyssa right at the end. Tegan gets hypnotised, tries to assassinate someone, gets cured by the Doctor and then spends the rest of the book trying to be the voice of reason for a secret agent while also railing against the sexism of Morestran society. All in all, neither gets to do much until the Messingham set piece of a finale.

That said, you barely notice, because there is so much going on in the book at such a great pace in so many places that you have to run to keep up. There are fights between Church and State, there are fights within the Church, while the secret agents on both sides go renegade and pretty much fight all comers, though for very different reasons. Imperial spy Ferdinand is the nearest thing we get to a sympathetic character amongst the Cardinals, Princes, priests and sycophants all vying for their own self-centred ends. But while Ferdinand is trying to do good – it is he who destroys the Church lab – his zeal against the Church what done his family wrong is tinged with as much fanaticism as any other character in the book. His Church opposite number is Fall, also out for revenge, but is unconcerned with who he kills, much like every other character in the book. Unlike the casual killings of most of the clergy, Fall just likes chaos and wants to spread it as much as possible. He is also hiding a dark secret but you don’t feel for him in the end.

The political machinations are largely well handled, though I wished that Messingham did not have so much casual bloodlust. I started rolling my eyes at every flunky or messenger who was casually despatched. Like “The Face-Eater” which came out of the same pen, my advice is not to get too close to any of the characters, though Messingham delights in reminding them just how horrid they all are.

There are also a number of good points and bad points to focus on. The good points is the depiction of the decaying Morestran Empire – cars pulled by horses, soldiers both using gun and sword, great star fighters that lie rusting in the sea. The very limitations that the remaining technology that both sides can call on means that the final battle is convincing and easily conveyed on the printed page. Messingsham depicts the battle through transcriptions of intership communications which works wonderfully. Throughout the book he skilfully uses such transcriptions, communiqués, minutes and excerpts from the underground student press and the Morestran holy book to reaffirm the main facts of the book that might have been obscured by everything else. And is Pope Luciani just a reference to the murdered Pope John Paul I, or to the song about him by The Fall?

Conversely there are a few problems other than a gratuitous body count. One is the number of times people call Zeta Minor the “Planet Of Evil”, which is way too self-conscious. Similarly is the way Fall gets his hands on a two thousand year old tape of events from “Planet Of Evil”, which made me wonder if there was a BBC shop that far in the future. But more importantly is the handling of the secret Church lab where they are turning unsuspecting people into anti-men. Again it is no secret throughout the book, with the only mystery being its location. And the whole concept of creating anti-men to steal anti-matter seems nonsensical, as is the way they could mine the black pool in the first place without the anti-creature depicted on the cover freeze-drying them. But Messingham hides these plot failings by having so much going on that you don’t notice, which means that the book is great for reading, just don’t sit down and analyse it too closely.

Finally we get to the set piece, with the long awaited return to Zeta Minor and the appearance of the anti-creature on a giant scale. I liked the ending, others here haven’t. I like it because it is in keeping with the hustle and bustle of the rest of the book. It rushes along, as an army of anti-men (well, anti-people) threaten our heroes, there is a heroic sacrifice, the Tower destroyed, the crystals gone. It is big, it is epic and it is very final. My only annoyance is that only Nyssa is saved from her anti- state like Sorensen did in the TV story. Could there be more survivors? But in reality I was just glad the story was over, because in the end it was a hell of a ride.


turbot: Perfect Tree, Armidale (Default)

May 2011


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