However much it might be denied upon occasion, the New Series Adventures are clearly aimed at a younger audience than the Virgin New Adventures or the BBC Eighth Doctor Adventures (now all sadly out-of-print) but Molten Heart is one of those books in which it is especially obvious.
I’m in no way saying that this is bad – far from it – but it becomes clear early on that the author has a younger audience of readers in mind. If you are one such, then please consider this an unqualified recommendation to read the book.
I’ll start by discussing the good points. The TARDIS lands in the middle of an underground civilisation of silicone-based lifeforms – all of whom have child-friendly, easy-to-remember rock names like Basalt and Quartz. This is probably the most interesting part of the book: an underground society, to whom the surface world is at best a myth and at worst a blasphemy. One of the major plot elements consists of the Doctor and friends accompanying Ash, one of the children of this civilisation, in search of her lost father. A sort of Journey to the Centre of the Earth in reverse. The strangeness of the alien world, the perilous journey through unknown dangers – these were the most compelling aspects of the book, and sadly they’re largely squandered and left under-developed.
The book captures the personalities of the TARDIS crew (or “the friends”, as it refers to them, in a manner a little reminiscent of Enid Blyton) perfectly. Their individual mannerisms, and styles of speaking have been well observed and rendered on page. It was easy enough to imagine Jodie Whittaker, Mandip Gill, Tosin Cole, and Bradley Walsh delivering the lines as written. There is perhaps even a little of Series 11’s tendency to include social messages along with the adventure.
It’s also worthy of note that Una McCormack (The Way Through the Woods) takes the opportunity to shake up the pairings of the TARDIS crew as they set off on their various separate adventures in a way that the TV series never has so far. Yaz and Graham are paired up, as are the Doctor and Ryan. It was really quite refreshing for Yaz to be made the driving force of one of the plotlines for once. Even Ryan finally finds a use for his computer gaming skills in the last act of the story.
I also liked that for once, there was no true villain as such. There are many people that believe they are right, despite evidence, but no one out to deliberately do harm, or to pursue their own selfish interests. This isn’t done all that often, and again it made for a nice change.
The downside of the book for me came as a result of its young target audience. This means that plot developments are repeatedly advertised well in advance, so that they don’t confuse (or surprise!) anyone. Characterisations are disappointingly one-dimensional. Each of the new characters can be described in a single sentence, and never vary even slightly from that single characteristic. Basalt, the missing scientist, is eccentric and clever. There is nothing else to him beyond that. In fact, Basalt is so clever that with minimal information, he’s able to accurately deduce the nature of the surface world. It would have been interesting to see his alien mindset explored a little deeper with a few of his theories being clever but wrong, due to his inability to understand a world that isn’t underground and self-contained. This, again, is a squandered opportunity.
This lack of subtlety sadly costs Yaz her one attempt at being an effective member of the TARDIS crew. Faced with a proud, but mis-guided alien ruler, she forgets to think WWPD (What Would Picard Do), forgoes all attempts at diplomacy, and instead unleashes a tirade which effectively boils down to “Raaah! Why are you people so stupid! Raaaah!” and is surprised to find herself locked up as a consequence. This is something I’d expect from a child placed in that situation, but not a police officer, presumably trained in dealing with difficult members of the public.
Despite these shortcomings, however, the book proceeds at a nice pace, is easy reading, and will certainly pass a few hours and fill the hole in your life that results from Doctor Who being off the air.
Finally, the version I bought was the audiobook, read by Dan Starkey (Strax), so I’ll comment briefly on the quality of the performance and production. The reading by Starkey was superb. He’s no mimic, but his voices for the TARDIS crew were close enough that it wasn’t jarring to listen to. All of the voices he used were impressively different to his normal reading voice that it was almost like listening to a full-cast recording. The production was also of the usual high standard you’d expect from the BBC. Minimal sound effects, but some nice atmospheric music between chapters. Interestingly, the full TARDIS dematerialisation effect was included from An Unearthly Child, which I’m guessing is only the second time it has ever been used.
Overall, an enjoyable read (and listen!), but don’t expect to have your horizons broadened or to encounter anything challenging or surprising.