Coming from my own country, I once happened to bump into Kate Orman at a monthly meeting of my local Doctor Who fan club called The West Lodge, so named after The West Lodge of The Leisure Hive in the 1980 serial of the same name. She happily signed my copy of Return of the Living Dad with a rather sheepish “Cheers! Kate” and a smiley face. Over the years I have somehow acquired another inscription on the prologue of the book. It simply reads, “I wrote this bit! Cheers, Jon Blum” – presumably the same Jon Blum who wrote the hard-to-find BBC Books novel Vampire Science. If only Return of the Living Dad were more like Vampire Science and less like a joke-book for the fans, the signatures might be more exciting.
The comedy comes in a copious bundle, with excessive references to and in-jokes from a place called rec.arts.drwho of USENET during the 1990s, the online home of Doctor Who fans before internet forums took over and USENET declined. Below the blurb of Return of the Living Dad, it even says “Kate Orman lives on the InterNet, and occasionally in Sydney, Australia.” Orman used to prowl the internet, participating in rec.arts.drwho and maximizing her readership. Now, I believe her home is Outpost Gallifrey, the largest Doctor Who forum there is, though no doubt she participates in other forums too.
So what’s it all about? With a title like Return of the Living Dad, there’s no money on who can guess the plot. In fact, the star of the show is Bernice Summerfield (or Benny to her friends, and several tens of thousands of fans), the Doctor Who spin-off character that some Doctor Who fans know and loathe. Not because she’s a bad character, but because she is entirely and in every sense of the word overdone. By 2014, Bernice Summerfield had already featured officially in seventy-eight novels, five novellas, nine anthologies, seventeen different audio series comprising seventy-three audio stories, ten unconnected audio plays, ten short stories and an animated short film. Let’s face it, Benny has been done to death.
It’s with no hesitation, then, that I say I was reluctant to read Return of the Living Dad, which had been gathering dust in my bookshelf for years. I creaked open its front cover and within four hours, I was done, deliberated and ultimately disappointed.
It’s not that the writing is bad. Kate Orman’s ability for simple prose is something which many writers would aspire to possess, including myself. But her constant references to outside debates and somewhat lackluster plot about Benny finding her father and discovering he isn’t what she thought really does begin to jar by Chapter Thirty-Four.
What’s more, her constant puns (“The Quick and the Dad,” “The Name of the Roz”) and unusual chapter structure kill the already tainted flower.
Kate Orman is known in Doctor Who circles for minor inconsistencies in writing: Some of her novels are the best things to come out of Doctor Who spin-offs in years, some are not. The Return of the Living Dad is not. It was clearly written for a fan, by a fan, and with only the fan in mind, and unless you’re still stuck in 1996, much of it just won’t penetrate.