Sometimes a TARDIS crew is so well defined that it's enough for the author to simply dump them in a setting, set up a threat and add just enough period detail to keep it feeling authentic and let the cast run their paces on auto-pilot through said scenario. It's almost like watching a jazz band led by a crotchety old man who says "mm?" a lot. Even when you know the results are going to be comfortable and predictable, the principles involved are such old friends and their routines so beloved that it hardly seems to matter. If you're going to give me the First Doctor, Ian and Barbara, I don't want rampant experimentation, I want the best experience that a facsimile of a 1960s black and white not heavily budgeted British serial can give me. And by golly, we have it.
Maybe we don't get the low budget feel enough, but McIntee certainly does his best to give us the full experience for our entrance fee. The TARDIS crew find themselves dumped in 1865ish China, still under British rule and a bit wanton in parts, with bandits romping about and a general sense of uneasy disorder occasionally gripping the populace, forcing everyone to learn martial arts. Just like history teaches us. What history doesn't teach us is that the people were threatened by apparent reincarnations of the first Chinese emperor and his lackeys and it's up to a bunch of schoolteachers to save the day.
Except Ian gets mistaken for a local British major about twenty pages in and as a result gets the stuffing beaten out of him before anyone can do anything. Whoops! Time for a turn of the century Eastern medical drama!
McIntee has a nice feel for both eras, not only the historical but the era of the show as well. He gets bonus points for picking a section of history that isn't too well explored by the show and manages to include a famous Chinese doctor that isn't well recorded by history, meaning he can put his own stamp on the guy's personality while giving us the requisite "famous but not too famous" figure the Doctor can talk shop with and add to his autograph book. He has a not bad feel for characters either, remembering that the old historicals were often populated with lots of locals and he throws in the stories of bandits and assistants and monks and lovers and soldiers. Some of the Chinese characters start to blend together for me after a while, mostly due to unfamiliarity with naming conventions (which probably speaks more about my inability to close any cultural gap as opposed to anything the author did wrong), but does his best to bring across the "life as they know it" feel, giving us the full six episode arc, where we immerse ourselves and just as we're getting comfortable, we move on.
It winds up being quite readable and wildly entertaining, which is good because he lets all the good times and history replace the plot. The threat of the emperor (or whatever is controlling him) seems to rear up whenever the book feels like taking a break from depicting the Doctor and company puttering around and at no point does this ever feel like a dire threat that they must race against time to stop. The book doesn't even bother to define the threat that closely, and while it gets points for keeping an obvious alien presence at arm's length, the aliens don't seem to fight the Doctor as much as decide to give up and their motivations are completely lost beyond "Duh, because we can." It feels like he didn't feel like writing a proper climax and just wanted to skip to the feel good parting of an ending that all the proper episodes had, where the regulars pile into the tiny box and everyone marvels at how not only they fit but how the magic box disappears into thin yet noisy air.
This complete lack of anything resembling tension should make the book fall completely flat, but it doesn't. McIntee mostly gets away with this by tossing in so many distractions with intriguing paths that it hardly matters that none of them line up to go anywhere near the main plot. Is Major Chesterton a future version of Ian that he may be forced to kill? Thankfully Possible Future Ian got a bump on his head and can't remember much (especially pesky stuff like the magic teleporting box and the fetching schoolteacher you used to travel with), leading to pages and pages of speculation. Meanwhile the book has a strange fixation with the concept of Barbara and Ian as a couple, taking something that was always hushed and implied on the level of Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn and shoving it right out into the open. They do everything but call each other "darling" and many of Barbara's scenes focus on how she wants to see Ian's sweet, sweet face and fall into his waiting arms. He's a bit more stoic but along the same lines. I don't have any inherent problem with this, if any TARDIS couple might as well be romantic it's this one and they make a better theoretical married couple than some actual married couples who have traveled in the blue box, but to have it brought up so often like they're lovestruck teenagers, especially when none of the other books featuring them harp on it to this degree makes it somewhat disconcerting. Especially if you're somehow blissfully unaware of decades of fan speculation on this matter. It does lead to one interesting moment toward the end of all this, which makes you wonder if that was the whole point of this book being written.
Meanwhile, Vicki is about as useless as Susan, but with far less screaming. Which isn't Vicki's MO at all (in the show she was more useful than Susan, with the added bonus of less screaming) but for some reason it seems that McIntee didn't quite know what to do with her. Barbara does think about slapping her at one point, which is amusing in itself considering she's a teacher and generally naturally unflappable.
Still, there's time for jokes, some of which are funny (Ian's reaction to the truth about Major Chesterton) and some that are not (at one point they quote "Everybody Was Kung-Fu Fighting" so straightfaced I can't tell if the characters or the author are being ironic), but what there is strangely not time for is a resolution that makes sense. Yet it's all so predictably entertaining that it goes down easy even when you can write the pages like you have a time machine (hm, they walked into a room full of soldier statues . . . will they come to life?) and in the midst of watching old favorites do what they do best (I should not neglect to say, despite all else I've criticized, his Hartnell is spot on which is a big plus) I found I just didn't care about the other niggling details (I wonder if the threat was meant to be brought back for a sequel, so glaring is that omission). I may not care about this book in a month (especially with a shelf of Hartnell DVDs to fall back on) but for two hundred eighty pages it put me back in the era again and did it well and while I want to ask for more than that, I find that it's oddly fine just the way it is.