Cat’s Cradle: Witch Mark

Somebody–who, I don’t know; I can’t find a source for the quote–once called the TARDIS a machine for traveling between genres. Cat’s Cradle: Witch Mark is the purest possible realization of that idea, the first New Adventure written solely to land the TARDIS crew in an unaccustomed genre. It barely has a plot, lacks any theme, and isn’t interested in its characters. It exists because the author thought that setting the Doctor loose in his derivative fantasy world of Tir na Nog would be neat. As a novel, it’s a wonderful ant farm.

Witch Mark is also the first and so far only time the Doctor has shown up at his friends’ place to crash on their couch, mooched off of them for a couple days, wandered off without bothering to thank them or say goodbye, and thus never learned that they’d been killed and replaced by the shapeshifting demons he inadvertently led to their house. There’s a reason for this, but it’s going to take some explaining.

I mentioned that Witch Mark barely has a plot, but you might not notice it for a while. There are certain kinds of events that happen in traditional Doctor Who stories. Witch Mark is just bright enough to notice them and just clever enough to imitate them… but it doesn’t understand what they’re for. Here’s an example. The statistically average Doctor Who story begins with an inciting mystery, a weird disaster to hook the audience’s curiosity. Maybe a glowing green corpse pulled out of a mine, or maybe an oil rig found abandoned and riddled with giant tooth marks. There’s an implicit contract with the audience that the mystery will have something to do with the plot, and that its meaning will become clear as the story unfolds. Witch Mark opens with a bus in ruins, its dead passengers unidentifiable, all dressed in new clothes, all carrying cash-filled suitcases, all with the same bizarre birthmark on their necks. A memorable setup… but even though we eventually learn who, or what, these people were, it’s never clear what they were doing, and by the end of the book the characters no longer seem to think it’s even important. Witch Mark builds up bits of story just to throw them away. It’s like the narrative has attention deficit disorder.

Three quarters of the way through Witch Mark a plot becomes vaguely discernible, like some kind of cotton-candy based monster in a heavy fog. Then you realize that only a couple of dozen pages in the entire book matter. The plot goes kind of like this:

SORT-OF-VILLAIN: This whole planet is my experiment, and I’m turning off the sun and going home.

DOCTOR: Why don’t you refuel the sun, and leave the experiment going?

SORT-OF-VILLAIN: Huh. I never thought of that. Okay.

Which sounds mean, but I’m hardly exaggerating at all. This leads to the only thing in the book which can honestly be called an idea, and it’s nothing more interesting than the wary mistrust, shared by half the popular media, of any scientist not engaged in solving crimes–the suspicion that scientific research is an obsessive windmill-tilting project run by cold sociopaths. As a bland supporting cast member puts it, “When I was a student, you could always tell the ones who’d go on to become research scientists. They lacked soul, they were heartless.” Which is an interesting accusation, because it’s one I might make against Witch Mark.

Like I said earlier, Witch Mark notices that the average Doctor Who story has certain elements, and imitates them without understanding their purpose. One of those elements is the one-off companion, a local who functions as part of the TARDIS crew for one story but doesn’t leave with the Doctor at the end. One-offs are useful not only as native guides but as protagonists–characters whose lives can change in a single story, useful in a series where the regulars develop more slowly if at all. Witch Mark’s imitation is Bathsheba, a young Tir na Nogian, or Tir na Nogite, or whatever the hell you’d call her. A fair amount of time is spent on her background and she tags along after the Doctor for the better part of the book. And just as she’s having some character development the Doctor dumps her and wanders off with a veterinarian. She shows up once more for a goodbye scene; blink and you’ll miss her. Her story feels unfinished; she hasn’t grown, she hasn’t learned anything, and it’s not clear what’s going to happen to her next.

They’re all like that. We meet Inspector Stevens, a sub-Mulder paranormal policeman investigating the bus accident; Jack and David, a couple of tourists; and Stuart, a vet who comes across a unicorn horn. Stuart only exists to deliver exposition, Jack and David exist to deliver a deus ex machina, and Stevens does nothing useful at all; all are ignored as soon as the book doesn’t need them anymore. Faced with this bland bunch, it’s hard to care. David shows a bit of personality early on, but only because he’s both insane and stupid–we’re told that he’s been “doing things to donkeys that even Spaniards would balk at”. I have no idea what that means, but it sounds more interesting than anything actually in the novel. Stevens becomes momentarily interesting when he pulls out a book: “He propped open the book on the steering wheel, tore off a page corner to chew, and made another effort to read it.” I’m always going to wonder why he was eating his book.

But the oddest character in the book is the Doctor himself. Which is where we came in, with the Doctor abandoning his friends–which I guess he’s ready to do anytime, since he also dumps Ace and Bathsheba when they aren’t convenient. He’s only mildly concerned when some unicorns are trapped on earth, suggesting that the Brigadier could keep them in a stable with his horses. Most bizarrely, he seems to think of Herne, the local mysterious elderly guy, as nothing more than a glob of organic matter with which to repair the TARDIS.

He has all the mannerisms of the seventh Doctor but a very different attitude towards people. The Doctor we know manipulates people, albeit with benevolent intent. This Doctor uses them. Not that that’s what Andrew Hunt intended; he wouldn’t have had any idea as he wrote the book that his Doctor was behaving oddly. The thing is, Witch Mark doesn’t see its characters as people. They’re props in the Doctor’s adventure, bits of scenery to be shuffled offstage as soon as they’re in the way. Naturally the Doctor also starts treating people as props–his behavior is an unconscious reflection of the story’s structure.

As for the reason the book is like this… at this point it’s necessary to note just what genre Witch Mark is trying to imitate. Andrew Hunt’s Tir na Nog isn’t just a fantasy world. It’s that specific subgenre of fantasy that a lot of SF fans call “extruded fantasy product,” the kind of inbred Celtic- Middle-Earth-Dungeons-and-Dragons mishmashes that Diana Wynne Jones parodies in her Tough Guide to Fantasyland. These things always require their heroes to travel all over the damn place, because the author built a whole endpaper-map’s worth of world for this story and by God he’s going to show you all of it. They’re also the first kind of novels since the 19th century to routinely appear in three volumes… which explains a lot about Witch Mark’s aimlessness. With only 256 pages instead of the usual 2400 or so, things had to give, and they were plot and character–the elements that tie a book together, making a bunch of stuff that happens into a story.

Speaking of a bunch of stuff that happens… One reason that Witch Mark isn’t well loved, besides the fact that it’s not all that good, is its position as the book that was sort of supposed to wrap up the Cat’s Cradle trilogy. The Cat’s Cradle arc started with two solid books and yet barely hangs together; it’s all too obviously built from three disparate novels with awkward, tenuous links plastered on. On the other hand, at the Doctor Who Ratings Guide Robert Smith has argued that they’re thematically linked, citing as similarities “a bleak and depressing world on the brink of collapse… a key division between magic and science and a young boy with astonishing mental powers that he can’t fully control. After the opening scenes, the Doctor is completely absent from the first third of the book, giving Ace the Doctorish role for the first part. There’s also a very detailed slow-panning scene when the Doctor reenters the plot.” There’s something in this… but the problem is that while the books in the trilogy have these recurring elements, the books aren’t about them; they’re all about their own things, and don’t add up to a larger exploration of the shared elements. So it doesn’t help much. As individual books, two out of the three Cat’s Cradle novels are brilliant–but the quality of the story arc, as an arc, is indicated by the fact that on two out of the three covers the Doctor’s robot cat is waving its buttocks at us.

I know absolutely nothing about Andrew Hunt–even his about the author blurb mentions only that this was his first novel. I have learned from the Jade Pagoda mailing list that he’s remained active in fandom, and that he wrote the book at age 17 or 18, which makes sense–Witch Mark seems very much like the work of an enthusiastic but inexperienced writer. He never wrote for the series again. It’s too bad, because there are signs that he might have improved with experience–mostly the prologue, which is, weirdly, on a higher level than anything that follows. It’s still not great, but it is at least good. I almost wonder if the prologue was written last, showing skills Hunt gained from his experience writing the rest of the book. There are a few sharp turns of phrase, like “he had a stronger constitution than many small countries.” And then there’s this: “He [the Doctor] could no more reveal his fear than a warlock could reveal his true name. That knowledge could give others a power over him–if they knew how to use it.” This is the thematic material that’s missing from the rest of the book… an attempt to relate the Doctor’s character to the material to come. I can imagine a different version of Witch Mark, one that drew the Doctor as a rationalist, scientifically- based equivalent of the stereotypical mysterious old wizard, and maybe ended up saying something about the Doctor and about the fantasy genre in the process.