**INSIDERS: A Critical Appreciation**

Review by Graham Woodland
Original story by Jeri Massi

Featuring the Third Doctor and Sarah Jane Smith

This is, quite simply, one of the strongest pieces to be posted to alt.drwho.creative in a good long while.

In its episodes the reader will find: solid Who tradition; horror; orcs in space; detective capers worthy of Messrs Campion and Lugg at their most energetic (with authentically Allingham-esque dark undertones); moments of pure slapstick; and a serious, specific exploration of a religious philosophy of mercy. The combination turns out so well balanced as to make a heady brew indeed, and a story I'll not soon forget.

A moment's digression before we set off, since this issue will be a breaker for some: like all of Jeri Massi's stories, Insiders reflects and advances an unapologetically Christian worldview. There are those who will find this intrinsically un-Whoish, or even an inherent lapse of taste. Now, I am a passionate agnostic and anti-supernaturalist, whose nearest approach to religion is a debatable kind of philosophic Deism; and spiritual tub-thumping is the wellspring of so much bad writing it isn't funny. And one of the problems I do have with this story relates to the author's final handling of her thesis. But to miss or blame this story on such grounds is indistinguishable in folly from the much-derided practice among certain fundamentalist Christians of boycotting non- Christian literature. This story is not a tract: it is a thumping good read, and---like such other Massi classics as The Dangers of Exceeding the Blinovitch Limitation Effect---does not, in fact, mention Christianity *per se*, nor insist that one believe in anything like it, even within the context of the story! Nonetheless, the Doctor is quite plainly abroad in an essentially Christian universe; and those unable to conceive of any interesting fruits of such a situation may hereby consider themselves warned, and additionally whacked over the head with a kipper, in hope of stirring their slumbering curiosity.

And now to specifics. Spoilers much ahoy:

The structure of Insiders is one of its greatest strengths. In a nutshell, it conforms to one of the oldest tricks in the Who book - Doctor and companion are separated; they pursue different plot strands whilst trying to stay alive long enough to meet up again; they are reunited in either triumph or (at least) definitive survival. Insiders, however, uses this framework to very particular and rather audacious ends; and from the beginning, the plot is constantly veering round blind corners and coming up with new surprises. It seems both more predictable (which I think is deliberate) and somewhat less effective (which is clearly not) in the single-stranded portions. More of this anon.

The double-stranded section uses parallel stories of very different tones to support each other, and to maintain the piece's characteristically fast pace.

Sarah's story is emotionally harrowing, and perforce largely inward-turned: she spends most of the tale infected and terminally sick, stuck in a deep cave on a barren planet, with the orc-like Ivorites hunting her for food and a lethal giant spider blocking her exit, and with the perverted spiritual carrion-eater that has brought her here waiting for her to die so it can steal her body. Her options are, to say the least, limited: in fact, all she can do is begin to commune with the empty, dreadful, and intangible alien Presence of Fomalhaut that haunts these caves, and come to appreciate this essentially passive being's benignity and purpose enough to gain its help. Fomalhaut's defining and specialised concept of 'mercy' is both expounded and illustrated at some length. Normally this would be, to put it mildly, a poor way to construct a story. Indeed, for me, not all of it works---but it is, as a whole, successful.

Ms Massi accomplishes this by two means. Firstly, Fomalhaut is *very* alien---we are constantly discovering just how much so, up until the moment we leave it. To communicate with Sarah at all, it has to personify itself in quasi-human form in her mind, and teach her to look at things through what it calls the right 'glasses'. Even then, more has to be left out than can actually be said; and the reader is left even more uncertain than Sarah as to just where it is forced to resort to metaphor, and where it is able to speak its meaning plainly in human-compatible concepts. This distancing and mutual struggle for understanding is used both to drive the story, and to escape the worst pitfalls of authorial lecturing. It is also true that Fomalhaut is a limited, fallible, and ultimately shockingly vulnerable creature. Much of its nature is discovered through its actions, and through Sarah's and its dealings with the spider Athena, the marauding Ivorites, and above all with the Insider in the story's climactic confrontation---which, extraordinarily, takes place before the Doctor can even reach the scene. The way Sarah is almost (but not quite) forced into that dreadful confrontation is morally insightful and memorably wracking. Speaking of the Doctor...

If Sarah's strand of the story is stark, psychological, and full of waiting, the Doctor's is correspondingly gaudy, action-packed, and racy. In the one whopping co-incidence of the book---which is written down to some form of foresight on the part of the TARDIS--- he materialises in Guardian City, a part of Ms Massi's patented future from The Book of Five Ringsand elsewhere, inhabited inter alia by her Rules, Tarks, and Salafians. These belong to the familiar school of 'specialist' aliens who are 'good at' particular things, the culturally dominant humans being the generalists - though this perspective may itself be humanocentric, and not shared by any of the aliens themselves. Five Rings afficionadoes will be quickly gratified by the prompt appearance of Mags Hardbottle---Detective to the Stars (and her Ogron sidekick Kogrik), to get the Doctor out of some official hot water.

Mags is one of Ms Massi's most inspired creations, and she doesn't disappoint here. Her appearance in any given plotline immediately sets the tone to the brighter side of 20s/30s detective pulp. This is unsurprising, because even in the Guardian City universe, Mags Hardbottle is a fictional character from a long-running potboiler series of precisely such a nature (from which a hilarious excerpt kick-starts Five Rings). However, *this* Mags is a juvenile Tark of unhappy history, who having first clung fiercely to the Hardbottle books as a means of escape, has parlayed herself into the real-world rôle through sheer obsessive application, general chutzpah, and carefully hiding her extra arms beneath her Detective Coat. She is also, of course, an excellent detective, and by the time of this story has become rather rich with the aid of her fictional original's reputation. Having practically coerced reality into her personal genre, it comes as no surprise that she has dragged the Doctor---along with the reader---into it within moments of appearing.

Mags, Kogrik, and the Doctor race to track down Sarah from the sharply limited data available, and save her from the slow death the Insider has certainly planned for her. The pace soon becomes frenetic, as the Doctor struggles mightily to cope with drug- trafficking, gladiatorial combat, slaving rings, multiple double- crosses, porcophilia, inebriation, and walking around with a bag over his head. LAUGH! GASP! and HOWL, AGHAST! as the plot pulps its way like a good 'un to the final resolution on Fomalhaut's world.

It is now time to clear up. Fomalhaut, in the cause of permanently removing the Ivorite infestation, throws the traditional 'delayed collapse of everything' lever, which has its usual effect of triggering a race against time to escape. Mags and Kogrik must also rescue some young Ogrons who have been shanghaied here as slave labour by the Ivorites. Fomalhaut is obviously a mistress of timing: the Ogrons are rescued, and the Doctor is able to bring Sarah out in time to reach the TARDIS. He brings her home, thoroughly exhausted but still radiant with the effects of Fomalhaut's 'mercy' (which, in fact, does not ultimately stem from the thoroughly passive Fomalhaut at all). He is touched by its effect on her, but as we leave him we see him as a thoroughly good man left profoundly and uncomprehendingly in the spiritual cold, as if peering with slight bewilderment through a winter's window at a hearthside scene - an effective take on the Doctor's traditional character in general and Ms Massi's particular version of him in particular. Here endeth the appreciation.

I shall be briefer in critique. The opening sequence, though critical, felt oddly sterile, and Sarah's invasion of the TARDIS comes over a little too Peter-Rabbit-ish for my taste. It does, however, hold attention, because of its unrelenting pace, and the deadly and compelling duel between the Doctor and the Insider. The race against time at the end is contrived, but (just) gets away with it on pulp value from one strand, and symbolic from the other.

The powerful images of divine mercy in this story reflect a difficult, even abstruse view of the concept. This works well when illustrating---through Fomalhaut's awkward communication with Sarah--- the distance and alienation that lies between its 'true fount' and the everyday, sometimes positively banal use of the term by humans and our ilk. Sarah's fumbling attempts to explain her new intuitions afterwards should indeed be awkward, but they are perhaps some degrees of explicitness and repetition too many. This scene with Liz Shaw, which uses Liz's development in Ms Massi's other stories to fine effect, is a necessary one, but inspires in me the irritating feeling of crying out for some revision I can't quite put my finger on. Though this whole closing scene remains emotionally and spiritually affecting, I found the very end of it frankly overwritten. Nonetheless, Insiders as a whole is a strong and ambitious work, which tackles an unusual theme with vision, wit, and brio, and can only add to its author's already considerable reputation. I await her next serial with great anticipation!

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