Tag Archives: New Adventures

Doctor Who Reviews: Shadowmind

You know what’s interesting about Shadowmind? It turns out I’d never read it before. I skipped it when it came out due to a limited teenage book-buying budget and mediocre reviews. Much later I decided I wanted an obsessive-compulsively complete New Adventures collection, picked up a copy at a used bookstore… and immediately forgot about it.

You can’t blame me. By that time I was all too familiar with Christopher Bulis. Among Doctor Who fans the Bulis name is synonymous with “meh.” As I’ve mentioned before, Bulis’s trademark move is to take a really amazing, ass-kicking central concept and surgically remove the fun. I’ll bet his novels sound wonderful in outline–Space marines meet Dungeons and Dragons! A steampunk expedition to the moon! I imagine Bulis working far into the night on his outline. Sweating over it until it gleams. With sweat. Finally he holds the precious document to the light. It’s perfect. “This is the most brilliant idea I’ve had so far!” exclaims Bulis. “Now… how can I make it suck?”

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New Adventures Reviews: White Darkness

Zombies are hip. They’re in our movies and comics and major investment firms. You can’t walk more than a few blocks without stumbling across some shambling horde of loosely anatomical types desperate for brains. Zombies, it seems, are the new ninjas. So the cover of White Darkness—on which a smiling Doctor, intrigued Ace, and off-model Benny greet their happy zombie friend—might look ahead of the curve. Not exactly. White Darkness gets into the kind of stuff that started the pre-pop-culture zombie legends. David McIntee “set out with the intention of giving Haiti and voudon society a fairer representation than is usual in fiction.” White Darkness is a straight-up historical adventure novel, with no pretentions to anything more, but it’s coming from a slightly smarter place than the books, films, and flash mobs covered in fake latex sores.

White Darkness innovated in setting the story somewhere other than goddamn London again. A lot of Doctor Who stories take place in and around London. I mean, a lot. There was a reason for this, once. The TV series had tight budget constraints and, hey, the Home Counties were right there. It’s slightly less understandable in the new series, which by the same logic should spend more time in Cardiff. When the novels and Short Trips collections head back to London again it’s plain baffling. It costs no more to set a novel in Africa, or India, or even on some entirely imaginary alien planet, than in Croyden. Apparently these stories suffer from imaginitive constraints… which may also explain those alien-world EDAs that could have been set in London. Conversely, many London-based stories could have taken place in any city and even at any time… but the TARDIS automatically, unthinkingly seeks out contemporary London again. (Preferably a neighborhood with some nice middle-class white people.) It’s like the default state of Doctor Who.

David McIntee did more than any other nineties author to claw the TARDIS from the death grip of southern England. Of his dozen Doctor Who novels only one is set in the London area, and that was a Pertwee-era UNIT story. Ironically, the author who in one book dropped in a lame joke about “political correctness”—which sounded completely bonkers coming out of the Doctor’s mouth, being normally used only by old-fashioned types who resent being asked to show some manners—did so much to diversify the series. When he wasn’t taking the TARDIS to strange new worlds, he set it down in 19th-century China. Or medieval France. Or imperial Russia. Or contemporary Hong Kong. Or, in this case, Haiti.

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New Adventures Reviews: Lucifer Rising

In their first couple of years the New Adventures covered surrealism, cyberpunk, high fantasy, space opera, a Quatermass pastiche, and even a right-wing religious authoritarian mystical horror novel (The Pit, which arguably took Doctor Who into places it should never have gone). Lucifer Rising was the NAs’ first Big Dumb Object novel.

Big Dumb Objects are one of your standard SF tropes—what Rudy Rucker calls “power chords,” the ideas that are to SF what the hooks are to a pop song. BDOs are the coolest gadgets in science fiction—both artifacts and environments. Rendezvous With Rama’s vast wandering starship is the canonical example. (And one of the blander ones, to my mind”¦ although it’s been years since I read it and if I went back I might have a different experience.) My favorite is Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris (from Solaris, natch). It might be stretching a point to class a living planet as a BDO, but Solaris does the same thing: injects Sense of Wonder straight into the novel’s jugular and gives the characters something mind-blowing to explore and react against.

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Doctor Who: Nightshade

“She felt a little thrill run through her. So here she was at last. The real sixties”¦ ‘68: time of the Beatles and the Stones, Martin Luther King and the Mexico Olympics”¦”

–Mark Gatiss, Nightshade

It’s surprising how often people only remember the Good Parts Version of history. Apparently that’s how it is between Ace and the sixties. She actually seems to think Christmas 1968 in small town England might be the next best thing to Woodstock. At least until, gawking at the scenery, she walks into the lamppost of celebrity gossip:

‘That Sharon Tate,’ trilled Mrs Crithin. ‘I think she’s ever so good. And it’s nice to see them still as much in love.’”¦ Ace looked into Mrs Crithin’s eyes and felt suddenly uncomfortable with her knowledge of the future, like some ancient seer cursed with the gift of prophecy.

The past is a less comfortable place than she realized”¦ an ironic lesson from what Mark Gatiss admits, in the author’s notes included in the BBC ebook edition of the novel, is “a story about the dangers of nostalgia that was, in itself, nostalgic.”

Nightshade cast the mold for the traditionalist Doctor Who novel–much more so than Genesys, which at least put the Doctor in an unfamiliar environment and told a story with some scope. In the author’s notes included with the BBC ebook version of the novel, Gatiss admits his desire “to write Doctor Who as I thought it should be done, effectively redressing what I felt to have been wrong with the programme in its later years,” which he feels were typified by “a sort of muddled quality, an almost perverse refusal to tell a straightforward story that I found very frustrating.” In other words, Nightshade is a conscious attempt to write Doctor Who as it Ought To Be– which is apparently something like a Barry Letts/Phillip Hinchcliffe era television story. Nightshade was the first book to take the Letts/Hinchcliffe stories, overlay them, highlight the points of similarity, and declare the resulting map a prescription.

The result is, in a way, a stereotype of a Doctor Who story–immediately familiar and comforting to a certain generation of fans who grew up in the seventies watching Tom Baker and reading Target novelizations. The TARDIS lands in a small English village. A monster called the Sentience–embedded Nigel Knealishly in local legend–methodically kills off the cast, leaving dried-out husks that crumble at a touch. (Interestingly, in his notes Gatiss says that he’s “not quite sure why the Sentience makes people rot but it’s good for description you have to admit.” Perhaps it’s because that’s what bodies in 70’s Doctor Who stories always do.) The Doctor’s allies face physical danger at regular intervals along the way. There’s even a reference to the Doctor’s “capacious pockets,” for the Target fans.

I don’t have a lot of sympathy for this approach. It’s tailored for fans who view Doctor Who as a certain kind of plot structure and a set of recurring tropes. My fondness for the series is based on the characters and on its vaguely humanist ethos; it’s part of the attraction that these characters and this point of view can potentially apply to completely different kinds of stories from episode to episode, or from book to book. In practice a Doctor Who story is almost always a problem-solving story of some kind, but that’s a broad category that might include anything from space opera to historical adventure to courtroom drama to P.G. Wodehouse-style farce.

All this explains why the series started to wear on me after it moved to the BBC Books imprint. There were times when every other book seemed to be a traditionalist story set in either a small English village or one of a number of nearly identical space colonies. But it’s important to remember that in 1992 a new Letts/Hinchcliffe style story, told with the length and depth of a novel, was something new, and this kind of story never dominated the New Adventures as it did the EDAs and PDAs. My weariness with traditionalist books isn’t fair to Nightshade, which is also in some ways a bit better than its heirs.

Not that the writing is brilliantly literary”¦ but it’s solid, and better than any of Gatiss’s subsequent Doctor Who work. The most interesting thing is that he seems to be trying to write cinematically, thinking in terms of visuals more than prose. For one thing, there’s the incongruous action scene in which, for several pages, the elderly Edmund Trevithick channels MacGyver. It doesn’t make much sense except as a special effects set piece. The big giveaway comes on page 33 when Ace meets Robin Yeadon for the first time and seems to magically intuit his name. It’s the same kind of floating point of view problem I described in my Genesys review; the scene appears to be written from Ace’s POV, but it’s really written from the POV of an imaginary television audience, who have already met Robin and who know him even if Ace doesn’t. (This may also be the point to mention that, in retrospect, it’s kind of unfortunate that Lawrence Yeadon’s nickname is now a text speak abbreviation. Every time someone called him “Lol” I expected it to be followed by a damn smiley.)

Nightshade escapes mediocrity because it’s about something: people who spend their lives looking back instead of forward. People who believe they have nothing worth looking forward to. Maybe they believe it because it’s true, or maybe it’s true because they believe it. Either way, at some point their lives ground down and stuck and they’re still reaching back for that ever-receding point when Everything Was Okay–living in the past while what present life they have bleeds away unnoticed under the anesthetic of regret and nostalgia. Which is bad enough in itself. Unfortunately for the inhabitants of Crook Marsham, they’re characters in a Doctor Who story and something’s come along to literalize the metaphor.

Crook Marsham comes off as the English equivalent of something anyone living in the American midwest has seen, or at least driven through without stopping: some decaying small town with a still, cold main street and a slowly rising median age. Everyone’s best days seem behind them. Everyone has a lost loved one or a golden age to remember. Even the nurse at the old folks’ home is pining for her student days, wishing she were out in the Paris riots.

The hammer comes down on this bunch during the longest nights of the year. Which is doubly appropriate. It’s the natural time to feel depressed, turn inwards, and reflect on the year gone past. It’s also Christmas, which in England is the traditional time for ghost stories. And ghosts are what the Sentience has to work with–the things that metaphorically haunt its victims made real. A less carefully conceived book might have been set at any time of the year, or no specific time at all. Nightshade is scattered with these little details”¦ The prologue on Gallifrey, with its “terrible sense of stagnancy.” The way Lawrence Yeadon dresses slightly too young for his age. “Those Were the Days” turning up on the radio and “You Only Live Twice” appearing at the theater.

Most of all, there’s the Doctor. In a book as traditional as Nightshade, it’s a shock to see him this weary, and even vulnerable. On his first appearance he’s slumped in a chair wearing only a nightshirt and a dressing gown. He feels the cold and even gets a runny nose. (Or at least a “drew-drop,” whatever that is. If it’s a typo, it wasn’t fixed for the ebook.) He gags at the sight of the Sentience’s victims and sobs in pain from a dislocated shoulder. It’s the Doctor’s unusual weariness, more than any other detail, that defines Nightshade’s feeling of melancholy.

The one really odd thing about Nightshade is the ending. The Doctor pretty much kidnaps Ace after she’s decided, admittedly for no very convincing reason, to stay with Robin–and, weirdly, he and Ace are on very good terms at the beginning of Love and War. Apparently Paul Cornell didn’t know this was going to happen. I always suspected that Virgin had scheduled Nightshade as Ace’s departure, only to realize that they needed her for one more book; the denouement has the air of something written hurriedly to fix a plot hole. But the truth is that, according to his author’s notes, even Gatiss doesn’t know what’s going on here: “I only know that I was told it would be wrapped up in the next book and I remember picking up Love and War only to find there was no reference to it whatsoever!” I guess it’s just one of those mysteries. Like what happened to Jimmy Hoffa. Maybe the Doctor kidnapped him, too.

Whatever the reason, Nightshade ends with Robin, the one non-nostalgia- ridden person in Crook Marsham, getting something of his own to look back on. He gets stuck for a while, like everyone else, going back to look for the TARDIS every day for months”¦ but unlike everyone else, in the end he moves on with his life. Or seems to. A coda at the end of Happy Endings hints that Robin has had more trouble getting over Ace than we’d been led to believe.

He has, unknowingly, proposed to her mother.

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.

Cat’s Cradle: Warhead

There’s a moment in Cat’s Cradle: Warhead when Ace comes across a turtle crawling onto a highway. She picks it up, carries it to safety, gently sets it down–and it turns around and crawls patiently back into danger. This moment says everything about Warhead’s view of humanity–as does the moment later when Ace, in danger, comes upon the turtle’s crushed body and picks it up to use as a weapon.

I hadn’t read Warhead–the debut novel from TV script editor Andrew Cartmel–since it was published almost 15 years ago. I remember liking it a lot at the time. It’s a well-written book, with precise, intense prose and lucid imagery, something I’ll write more about later. I didn’t remember it was also such a sour, humorless and self-righteous book. Warhead is an emotionally underdeveloped teenager that thinks it’s the first person in the world to learn about evil. Warhead has decided that it just knows best. I can understand why I was impressed by the writing. I can’t think why the hell I didn’t mind the attitude. Of course, in 1992 I was an emotionally underdeveloped teenager. I don’t know what Cartmel’s excuse was.

Let’s take a look at the point where I got really, really pissed off at Warhead: chapter three. Go back and read it, if you like. It stands on its own, almost a short story. Here we meet Maria. She’s been poor all her life. She escaped from Los Angeles just before the inner cities became virtual prisons. She works as a janitor for the Butler Institute because jobs are scarce and it’s her only chance to make a living. She almost has enough money to buy her son a better life in Canada. Sometimes she has trouble heating her apartment in the winter. She’s dying from the chemicals her employers give her to clean their toilets.

One night Maria finds the Doctor hacking into the computers. He trips an alarm. She helps him out. And then, having risked everything to rescue the Doctor from his own incompetence–not only her much-needed job, mind you, but her life, because those security people are armed and crazy–she asks him to take her with him. And he says no. Why not, Doctor?

“The fifty-first floor of this building. You know what goes on there…. You’ve known for years, and you’ve let it happen.”

Yes. Of course. Because a desperately poor single mother clinging precariously to the only job she can find by her melting fingernails has so many options.

(Warhead is muddled on this point. On page 195, the Doctor says of the impending environmental collapse, “Ordinary people don’t have the ability to alter the course of events. Only the big corporations and the very rich have the power to do that.” So do ordinary people have a responsibility to act even in hopeless situations? Or are they helpless sheep? Which is it, Doctor?)

You know what chapter 3 reminds me of? This casually oblivious condemnation from a man who’s never had to worry about money, the owner of a time machine full of comfortable furniture and good tea and cool gadgets, a man who, if in trouble with the local authorities, can simply pick up and move anywhere else in space and time? It reminds me of the nice privileged middle class people watching hurricane Katrina on their big-screen plasma televisions, who asked in vague puzzlement why all those unseemly poor people didn’t just walk out of New Orleans before the disaster. Congratulations, Warhead. You’ve just made me hate the Doctor.

But that’s not fair, really, because this isn’t the Doctor we know. He’s been bent out of shape to deliver a Message. You can tell a book’s gone wrong when the characters act strangely to prop up a Message. This comes up again in chapter 16, when pompous pseudo-pagan Justine announces “It can be devastating to have your view of reality challenged… And now you’ve made me angry. So that’s what I’m going to do to you,” and, with lines like “You have your necessary illusions as well. But in your case they involve science,” and “You don’t believe in magic but you believe he’s from another planet and you’re his girl companion,” sends Ace into a violent screaming panic. Which is ridiculous. Because, unlike Justine, Ace has seen other worlds, and travelled in the TARDIS, and in just the previous book met a bunch of guys from the Doctor’s home planet who were testing the prototype, for God’s sake. By the third paragraph of this drivel, Ace should have collapsed on the ground in helpless giggles, just like Porky Pig watching Daffy Duck play Robin Hood. But Andrew Cartmel–or the Andrew Cartmel of 14 years ago, anyway–is terminally humorless as Justine, and he has a Message: that a “person’s belief system is their world.” Which probably sounded terribly sophisticated in 1992. Today, when thousands of people have been killed or maimed in a war that started because the White House thought they could create their own reality by cherry-picking the evidence that supported their world view, it’s just obviously vile and stupid.

After a few chapters I got paranoid and started wondering if random details were propaganda. Like the Butler Institute’s habits of harvesting organs from prisoners and experimenting on unwilling human subjects. I got the impression that Cartmel included this less because it made sense than because anyone who would research uploading minds into computers must be Evil. In an era when most SF is busy expanding the definition of human–treating cyborgs, AIs, clones, the genetically modified, and uploaded minds as just different kinds of people–this has begun to look a bit old fashioned. BI’s plan doesn’t make sense, anyway–if they’re going to upload the whole human race, then who’s going to maintain the computers? Silurians? Even the Doctor’s plan doesn’t make much sense. The simplest thing to do if he really wants to help Earth’s environment would be to help BI finish the upload program without hurting anyone else. Once the people who weren’t interested in fixing the environment were uploaded and out of the way, the rest of the world could get on with things. Then again, maybe Cartmel doesn’t think that ordinary people, working together, can get anything done–see that quote from page 195 again. Does he think things will go all Atlas Shrugged once the rich guys are uploaded?

And yet… Warhead’s philosophical assumptions may have lodged deep in my craw, but it was a surprisingly enjoyable read, just because there’s so much there to at least potentially enjoy. Starting with the worldbuilding.

This was the New Adventures’ first attempt at any kind of credible near future. “All too near,” says the blurb. Which is true, in more than one sense. Warhead’s future is our present–Lance Parkin’s Ahistory places it c. 2007–and futures don’t often age well. Which is no problem, because most SF isn’t really about prognostication, anyway. Still, there’s a certain pleasurable schadenfreude in the pedantic cataloging of all that some hapless decades-old futurist got wrong. Even some good stories have grown unintentionally comedic… like the ones where humankind made it into outer space but all the women are nurses and secretaries and telephone operators. Actually, that was Star Trek, wasn’t it? But there are also those stories which don’t look like the future we have, yet still work as plausible sort of alternate universes. And that’s what we have with Warhead. Our environmental problems are more subtle than Cartmel’s day-glo toxic pollutants, it’s still illegal in the U.S. to take organs from prisoners, and even in the big cities youth gangs rarely mount massive attacks on libraries, but on its own terms Warhead’s world is still among the most vivid and credible in Doctor Who.

The difference is in the details–specifically, in that Warhead has them at all. For comparison I grabbed a random EDA off the shelf–Coldheart, as it turned out–and skimmed the first few pages. The Doctor was in a cave. Not any particular cave, mind you. We’re told it’s a bit chilly, but otherwise it’s a stock set pulled from the BBC warehouse. It’s a side effect of the Stephen Cole/Justin Richards era’s conflation of novels and big-budget Hollywood movies. A scriptwriter can write “cave” and the set designer will come up with a fully realized environment… so, heck, why not a novelist? And the writer types the word “cave” and expects the reader to fill in the massive, gaping blanks.

Cartmel is big on specifics. The thing that makes Warhead a joy to read is his particular talent for choosing exactly the right details to build a complete, vivid mental image in the reader’s mind. When Ace visits an airport, he tells us how sound echos in the large tiled spaces, and what the other travelers are doing, and what the duty-free shop sells. We learn what the nameless soldier who tries to strike up a conversation looks like and what magazine he’s carrying. The plastic chairs aren’t just plastic chairs in general, they’re specifically plastic Eames chairs. All this for a location we only see for a couple of pages. The most important thing is that so many of these details mean something–like the fact that the duty-free shop sells cheap computer memory alongside the booze and cigarettes. It’s “incluing” again–c.f. my Time’s Crucible review, from ages ago. Cartmel picks out details that both set the scene and have implications beyond it, giving the reader a way into his world, a way to infer some of its history and culture.

Warhead is a densely packed story, so it comes as a surprise when you realize how simple its plot is. It’s the story of how the Doctor brings two people together for a specific purpose at one specific moment, and how that moment doesn’t play out as expected. A particularly efficient writer could cover it in a few pages… but Warhead is 262 pages long and doesn’t feel padded at all. A lot of the BBC Books-era novels have plots just as frail, but bulk themselves up to the standard 280 pages by making the characters run back and forth a lot to no purpose, smoothing over everything that might have made them unique with a fine plaster of meaningless digressions and authorial cul-de-sacs, until what was left was indistinguishable from the other busy but forgettable installments to either side. It’s just a bunch of stuff that happened, you know?

Where those books are straight lines, Warhead is a branching diagram, examining every implication of the Doctor’s plan, taking up the threads he brings together and following them back to their sources. It leads us through the histories of everyone affected by the Doctor’s actions, showing us how their lives are connected and how they reached the point where they tripped over the Doctor’s plans. Often when a Doctor Who book starts in on the biography of a secondary character it’s a sign that, five paragraphs from now, he’s going to be eaten by the monster. Warhead isn’t like that. In a sense, it doesn’t even have secondary characters, because in Warhead, everybody’s important. These aren’t just supporting players in the Doctor’s story, but the central figures in their own stories in which the Doctor himself plays a minor role. It’s significant that parts of Warhead could stand on their own as short stories.

And it’s also significant that none of the book–at least, nothing that I recall–is told from the Doctor’s point of view. And that this is one of the few books in which the Doctor’s actions really are almost as morally ambiguous as the fanboys always complained they were. The typical mediocre Doctor Who book is about its plot. Warhead is about what its plot means. The secondary characters are at its center–weirdly, even Ace comes off as one of the locals rather than the Doctor’s companion. To these people the Doctor looks weird and incomprehensible and scary, and for once we’re thinking about what his plans mean for them. And here is where Cartmel, for once, outgrows his adolescent certainty. He’s not delivering a pat moral, but asking a question, and it doesn’t have a simple answer.

Cat’s Cradle: Time’s Crucible

In retrospect, the most significant thing about Cat’s Cradle: Time’s Crucible is what it did for Gallifrey. Which is interesting, because it’s also the smallest part of the book.

For years, Gallifrey was a mysterious, rarely seen planet of space gods who, in their first appearance, casually sent the Doctor spinning into a big black void with his head missing. Subsequently they did crazy crap like unexpectedly appearing in midair outside of radio telescopes, or pulling transmat beams halfway across the galaxy and thousands of years into the past, all the time wearing relaxed, bemused expressions that suggested this kind of thing was just part of the morning routine, and after they’d had their coffee they’d really get going.

This changed with “The Deadly Assassin.” Robert Holmes gave Gallifrey layers of down-to-earth corruption and politics which added interesting story possibilities but were not immediately accepted by fans. A now-legendary review from a fan club newsletter, written by one Jan Vincent Rudzki, was reprinted 20 years later in Paul Cornell’s book License Denied. It’s worth tracking down, if only as a reminder that the style of writing that dominates many internet forums–a sort of breathless, half-literate nitpicking –did not originate there. As with a lot of this stuff, Rudzki’s criticisms are mostly based on unwarranted assumptions and personal hobby-horses, like his innocent faith in the notion that all Time Lords have easy access to “time scanners.” Most awesomely, he ends his review with “WHAT HAS HAPPENED TO THE MAGIC OF DOCTOR WHO?” in big capital letters, which should end every post on rec.arts.drwho. Even so, he does get something right: “This story really showed up the infatuation for Earth people in Doctor Who. It could have been set on Earth and no one would have known the difference.”

Robert Holmes’s Time Lords are mundane. They’re very, very human–almost indistinguishable from a herd of aging Oxford dons. Later writers took the wrong lesson from Holmes, making the Time Lords more and more prosaic until by “Arc of Infinity” they were pretty much a bunch of nice middle-class office workers hanging out in the food court at the mall.

Until Time’s Crucible. Marc Platt made Gallifrey weird again. Ancient Gallifrey is a world of telepaths dominated by those few with the will to make their thoughts entirely their own, ruled by a mad old seer whose office is a cage suspended above a fissure. The nice office workers don’t speak the language, and will probably lose their travelers checks within a couple of days.

What’s less immediately obvious is the skill with which Platt drew this society. Time’s Crucible displays an easy mastery of the technique that fantasy writer Jo Walton calls “incluing,” conveying more background through implication than infodumps. He trusts the readers enough to know that, from phrases like “strange-featured people who thought in strange accents” and the stress placed on words like “Individuals,” they can infer a great deal about this world, orienting the readers so that, by the time he states outright that everybody’s telepathic, they already have some idea of what this means.

I’m not blathering on about this because I think the art of suggesting more background than is shown was new to Doctor Who. Robert Holmes had mastered of the technique, as is obvious from something like “The Ribos Operation.” What’s important about this is that Time’s Crucible–to a greater extent than the more mythic Revelation–signals the point when Doctor Who seriously began learning from the themes and techniques of mainstream literary SF. This was a break with the TV series, which naturally was more influenced by other visual media, especially Hammer films and Nigel Kneale. Its literary sources tended to be writers old or famous enough to have works adapted to film, so that, when books like The Left Hand of Darkness and Stand on Zanzibar were winning SF awards, Doctor Who was broadcasting “The Dominators” and “The Space Pirates.” The New Adventures brought Doctor Who to the point where it was only about five or ten years behind the times, rather than twenty or thirty–which sounds snide, but it really was a major accomplishment. Their literary influences were a huge shift in tone for Doctor Who, and a sign of the writers’ recognition that this was a series of novels and not novelizations. The new direction alienated those few fans who wouldn’t accept anything but a TV episode frozen in print, but gained a stable audience and led to an artistically successful line of books. (I’ll repeat that, just so you realize how amazing it is: an artistically successful line of TV tie-in novels. That’s huge.) This success is only more obvious in comparison with the BBC Books, so many of which looked away from literary influences towards Hollywood blockbusters and modern media properties–and suffered as a consequence.

There are a couple of things you realize about Time’s Crucible on a second reading. First, that there’s a lot less Gallifrey in it than you remember. Second, that the issues the rest of the book deals with, which you didn’t remember at all, are a bit… well, abstract.

Judging from online reviews I’ve skimmed through, this is thought to be a difficult book. At first it’s hard to understand what the Process is trying to do, or what the hell it’s even talking about most of the time. But Time’s Crucible is less complex than it seems. There’s a reason why the Process’s goals are hard to understand: it doesn’t understand them itself–it doesn’t even know it doesn’t understand them. The Process’s plans, its blather about the “stolen future” and the conflict between its older and younger incarnations are all, in themselves, meaningless. The Process is an unwitting character in a psychodrama, acting out the conflict between Rassilon and the Pythia on ancient Gallifrey, absorbed through the Pythia’s mental link to Vael. The barren city where the biggest chunk of the action takes place is an empty stage for a few actors to play a stripped-down burlesque of the Pythia’s fall, a planetwide political revolution boiled down to its essence.

(Time’s Crucible was originally a TV proposal, by the way, and here we see how some version of this story, rewritten to require fewer special effects, might have worked–about six or seven actors besides the regulars in a setting that could be cobbled together from whatever sets and locations were on hand. Keep the Gallifrey bits brief, and you could suggest an offstage political coup with just Rassilon and the Pythia arguing in a cave.)

Time’s Crucible is a political satire. It’s about what happens when the powerful become complacent; when political power is something to be held onto for its own sake, not as a means to an end but as an end in itself. Usually at that point a special kind of denial sets in. It’s a defense mechanism. Powerful people don’t like to admit, even to themselves, that they could stop being powerful. They see the future as a kind of eternal Now, which their heirs will rule forever. Often this extends even to the past, which they conceive of as a place of eternal “traditional values,” unchanging and unchallenged until the decadent present. Anything that suggests even the possibility of change is blasphemy.

U.S. politics provide an illustration. In a recent (at the time of writing) primary election in Connecticut, a longtime Democratic senator who had lost the trust of his constituents was thrown out in favor of a new candidate. This is the kind of thing that happens in a democracy, and always a disappointment to the loser… but the senator and his supporters reacted like a dog had walked into their dinner party on its hind legs, climbed on the table and recited dirty limericks. It was his right to run for reelection, damn it, and anything that challenged that was unnatural. Something of his attitude is demonstrated by the name of the third party he immediately formed in order to stay in the race. In the U.S. political parties usually take names that communicate their values: Democratic, Republican, Libertarian, Green. Senator Lieberman named his new party “Connecticut for Lieberman.”

The Pythia can’t imagine a future she hasn’t chosen. As she becomes entrenched in power her denial grows stronger, until she literally can’t see the future that it’s her function to predict. Meanwhile, the city reduces the struggle to retain power and deny history to absurdity. Time has looped back on itself, creating three eternal presents. The Process, unable to admit any change, struggles not with successors but with other versions of itself to preserve not only its reign but a particular moment of its reign as the true reality.

Despite this, the Process talks a lot about the future. Just what it’s saying about the future is one of the less clear things about Time’s Crucible, mostly because none of its dialogue means very much. It’s convinced the future was “stolen” because the Pythia believes that Rassilon has stolen her future, but it has no real idea of what the future is, beyond something that ought to belong to it. In the mouths of the Process “the future” becomes political jargon–the kind of word that shows up in speeches because of its great emotional appeal and slight intellectual content. Every government has jargon words, and the more self-aggrandizing and inbred the government the more of them there are: just think of the piles of inane buzzwords associated with communism. Closer to home, “freedom” has been taking a beating lately from George W. Bush, and if you sat him down and asked him what the word meant to him I doubt he’d have a coherent answer.

Taken to its furthest extreme, the obsession with holding on to power leads to a totalitarian state, arranged to suppress anything that might threaten the rulers. We don’t see a lot of Gallifrey, but what we do see suggests that the Pythia’s reign approaches totalitarianism. (Who needs telescreens when everyone constantly hears everyone else’s thoughts? And the Pythia seems to have no qualms about probing Vael’s brain at whim.) The city again reduces the situation to its barest essentials: a tiny closed ecosystem where the State is all that exists. With all else stripped away, the ruler’s preoccupations are revealed as pointless, egocentric absurdities. The citizens are literally made to participate in their own oppression, as the brainwashed guards from the final phase police their own past selves.

But the city, though useful for satire, is also Time’s Crucible’s big weakness. It’s a high-concept world of big ideas and mind-blowing set pieces, but curiously lifeless in its chapter-to-chapter existence. The only inhabitants are the Process, a group of mostly indistinguishable early Time Lords, the Doctor and Ace–and the Doctor vanishes for most of the book, leaving Ace to carry whole chapters on her own. This book apparently bores a lot of readers, and I don’t blame them; I liked it, but even I wanted less Ace and more Gallifrey. It probably wouldn’t have hurt the book to be about 50 to 75 pages shorter. The biggest problem is that Time’s Crucible is so very sedate. It needs more wit of the dry, not quite laugh-out-loud kind found in Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita or Eugen Ionescu’s play Rhinoceros. It needed, in other words, to be a true absurdist novel.

Even so, Time’s Crucible isn’t nearly as much of a slog as its reputation suggests. It didn’t equal Timewyrm: Revelation, but if you’ve never reread it–or never read it for the first time–it’s worth going back to.


Timewyrm: Revelation

Three books in, the word for the New Adventures was safe. Each book took one or two big ideas, nestled them in comfortably predictable Doctor Who plots, and politely sat down to tea. And then Timewyrm: Revelation rode in on a huge motorcycle, punched out everybody in the room, sprayed the walls with neon graffiti, and escaped through the window, laughing manically as it sped away into the night. Revelation was the book that slapped Doctor Who awake and screamed in its face. Nigel Robinson heard it, rubbed his chin speculatively, and wrote Birthright. John Peel and Terrence Dicks were left stunned in its dust, mumbling “Oo ar? OO AR?” like the bicycle guy from “The Claws of Axos” as they watched it recede into the distance. Revelation was just that sort of different, as is still immediately obvious when you notice that half the action takes place in a talking church on the moon.

The great thing is that it’s an entirely naturalistic talking church on the moon. A lesser writer, given these concepts, might instinctually write a wacky campfest. Taking them seriously (not the same thing as humorlessly) is harder and riskier but makes for a better book.

The other half of the book–this is supposedly a Big Reveal, by the way, but anyone paying attention guesses by the end of Chapter Three–takes place in the Doctor’s brain. Which is appropriate, because if there’s one thing the NAs needed to do, it was explore the Doctor’s mind.

It’s commonly argued that the seventh Doctor and Ace were among the best developed characters in Doctor Who’s history. This is more or less true, but no matter how well they were written on the screen, they weren’t yet adequate for a novel. TV is about the characters’ exterior lives; any sense of an interior life comes from the actors’ interpretations of their roles. A novel gets right into a character’s brain and roots around; its characters need to be deeper and more complete.

Ace in particular needed work; due to the requirements of what was still considered an old-fashioned “family” program, she couldn’t be the modern urban teenager the writers wanted; instead she spoke in a strange mock-street kid dialect. Combined with Sophie Aldred’s more-enthusiastic-than-subtle performances you had a character who could come off as a broad caricature on the page. So besides literally running through every nook and cranny of the Doctor’s mind, Revelation gives Ace huge swathes of background. At times she seems to remember something almost every other paragraph. The extent to which both characters are built up can be judged by the increased depth of almost all the books that came after Revelation–as well as the fact that Virgin called on Cornell again when the Missing Adventures started and they needed to prove that the older characters could work in a novel too.

The most important thing for Revelation to flesh out was motivation. The Doctor can hardly land anywhere without someone trying to kill him. He sees more dead bodies in a year than a really observant morgue attendant. And yet the TARDIS crew makes no effort to avoid all this trouble. They actively seek it out. Why not steer the TARDIS towards safe, civilized garden spots? Why not stick to tourism? Why do they do this stuff?

Less thoughtful stories answer the question by pretending it doesn’t exist. In something like, say, Genesys, the Doctor’s adventures are all a big lark. There’s no danger! Those guys getting killed over there aren’t anyone we know or care about! La la la! By the end of the book, Ishtar is punching holes in people’s heads and a few pages later they’re fine. It’s so unserious that Ace meets some aliens willing to wipe out the human race and take over Earth, and she’s not at all offended; in the end, the Doctor happily fixes their spaceship and allows them to leave. Presumably to exterminate some other species we don’t know or care about.

The other option–one that’s been explicitly adopted by the new series, as seen in “World War 3”–is to argue that the rewards are worth the risks. Revelation describes a moral system based on a variation on Achilles’s choice: most people have safe, comfortable lives, at the cost of stultifying conformity and partial obliviousness to the world around them. Given Revelation’s occasional Buddhist imagery, it’s tempting to say that they’re not “enlightened,” a term I’ve recently seen translated more evocatively as “awake.” (I can’t remember where. It may not even be an accurate translation– I’m not an expert on the subject. But is sounds so much less vague.) A smaller number of people embrace their inner weirdness, living as geeks and outsiders, fighting and changing the world. Both the Doctor and Ace are explicitly presented with this choice at different points in the book, albeit from different directions. Going along with the Buddhist imagery, Ace experiences a life in which she’s gained friendship and popularity by subsuming her real self, becoming “asleep.” She returns to the real world, rejecting the illusion, when she awakens to her true identity. The Doctor attains peace through enlightenment, leaving the normal universe and seeing the whole thing from outside; he chooses to return to a painful life in the world in order to continue his work, like a Bodhisattva who delays his own enlightenment for the chance to help others.

The choice offered by Revelation is, of course, simplistic and much too black-and-white. It’s also remarkably flattering towards the primary market for Doctor Who fiction, which includes a number of smart but weird outsider types, and vastly more people who just like to believe they’re smart but weird outsider types. But what the hell–anyone who thinks a novel can give them a complete philosophical framework for understanding life is probably reading Ayn Rand instead of Doctor Who anyway.

Besides deepening the characters, Revelation made the universe bigger. You finish the book with the impression of some vast weight of history reaching back into time… mainly because Revelation is hugely allusive. It constantly references other parts of culture, from literature to pop music to its own continuity. The references ground the story, giving it a wider, deeper context and a sense that this story is one small part of a big universe. Going back to Revelation is almost a shock after the BBC novels, too many of which appeared to take place in hermetically sealed worldlets constructed solely for the Doctor to have an adventure in. There’s so much stuff here that I’m sure I couldn’t catalog all of it… and if this is done in a very first-novel manner, ideas stuffed in wholesale with more enthusiasm than careful selection, what the hell–just then, that’s what the series needed.

Most notably, Revelation borrows imagery from myth and legend, especially from Norse, Christian, and Buddhist mythologies. What’s interesting isn’t just that Revelation does this, but how it does it. Occasionally you see someone using Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces as a sort of recipe book–a prescription for writing a story. (Perfect example: John Leekley’s attempted reintroduction of the series in the mid-nineties, one of a whole series of appallingly misconceived revivals detailed in Jean-Marc L’Officier’s The Nth Doctor.) Revelation uses myths like jazz riffs, co-opting the imagery, absorbing some of its power in the process, to tell its own kind of story. Often it blends its allusions with imagery taken from Doctor Who, as is the case with the Doctor’s other incarnations, who represent aspects of his mind–the first Doctor his memory, the third his striving for wisdom, the fifth his conscience, and the absent sixth his repressed id. They may represent mythic archetypes as well. Having read Lewis Hyde’s book Trickster Makes This World not long before I reread Revelation, I was struck by the resemblance between Cornell’s fourth Doctor–who appears as a ferryman able to travel between areas of the Doctor’s mind–and Hyde’s view of the archetypical trickster as a figure with a special ability to navigate and cross boundaries.

By adapting mythic imagery, and by alluding to Doctor Who’s own history in the same space, Revelation gives the reader the impression that these things are interchangeable, that the series is itself a mythology. Revelation incorporates pieces of legend, literature, music and myth, and demonstrates that the Doctor’s fictional universe can be big enough to incorporate all those things too. This is the book that prepared the readers for the trip to come–and freed the writers to make that trip weirder and better than it ever had been on television.

Timewyrm: Apocalypse

And now we come to Timewyrm: Apocalypse: The little book everybody forgot. At least, I did. I hadn’t read it since it came out, and I can’t remember what I thought about it at the time. Nigel Robinson was another Target author, albeit one of the better ones–his The Edge of Destruction was an intelligent and readable expansion of a script that would have become a short story in the hands of Terrance Dicks. In 1991, this might have looked pretty good.

Today, though… not so much. It doesn’t even rise to the level of a lot of BBC books, to be honest. Apocalypse slides through your brain and leaves few memories. You might recall a sea monster. And wasn’t there some blue lady? Come to think of it, aren’t you just remembering the cover?

Which is odd. A book set at the end of the universe should be memorable. But not in this case, because the first really noticeable thing about Apocalypse is that the distant, distant future is oddly like the present. On her first morning in Kirith Town, Ace wakes up in a four-poster bed, puts on a silk dressing gown, and sits down to a complimentary hotel breakfast. This is not the last time we’d see this lack of imagination, although it wasn’t until the BBC books that it got pathological. Then again, given the big plot twist, it makes sense that Kirithon society seems artificial; Justin Richards didn’t have the same excuse in Sometime Never.

The second thing you notice about Apocalypse is that it has pretty much the same plot as “The Krotons”–a peaceful village’s best and brightest youngsters are recruited for mysterious purposed by their technocratic overlords, and never seen again. The Krotons, being crap, went to all that trouble merely to fix their spaceship, but the Panjistri are more ambitious: they want to force- grow the Omega Point, a phenomenon famously hypothesized by Frank Tipler (and less famously hypothesized by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin). For anyone unfamiliar with this theory–because, hey, it’s not that famous–I’ll take the lazy route and quote Wikipedia:

The implication of this theory for present-day humans is that this ultimate cosmic computer will essentially be able to resurrect (“simulate” might be a more modest verb) everyone who has ever lived, by recreating all possible quantum brain states within the master simulation. This will be manifested as a simulated reality, except without the necessity for physical bodies. From the perspective of the simulated “inhabitant,” the Omega Point represents an infinite-duration afterlife, which could take any imaginable form due to its virtual nature.

Whoa. Dude. (Despite this, Timewyrm: Apocalypse is still boring, which is in a sense an accomplishment.)

To accomplish this, the Panjistri wad up the local gifted and talented kids into a big amorphous ball of group-mind-ness. They also make a couple of angry blobby monsters, because… actually, I can’t remember what the hell that was supposed to be about. Possibly because they’re Mad Scientists, and that’s What Mad Scientists Do. Apocalypse seems a bit leery of science. You get the impression that, to Robinson, biologists are a lot like the Panjistri– mysterious beings who spend their time in activities both incomprehensible and a little scary.

The most noticeable thing about Timewyrm: Apocalypse in the post-EDA age is that it exactly fits the expressed goals of the current BBC book line. It’s a young adult novel, for ages twelve to fourteen. It focuses on, and sympathizes with, Ace and Raphael, a local teenager. Parents are mostly absent. Instead we have the Doctor and Raphael’s tutor Miril, non-threatening and more or less with-it mentor figures–perfect for kids who might be embarrassed to have Mom and Dad around during an adventure, but who aren’t ready to throw off adult protection altogether. The story is driven by the concerns of youth: the feeling that they’re living in a world shaped arbitrarily and incomprehensibly by powerful grown-ups. The fear that joining adult society might involve conformity and the subsumption of their identities. Their psychological need for rebellion. And, of course, the ever-popular melodramatic adolescent romance, complete with an ex-girlfriend who betrays Raphael to the Panjistri merely because she’s jealous of Ace.

What’s weird about this is that Timewyrm: Apocalypse keeps flashing back to scenes with the Second Doctor, Ben and Polly–the TARDIS crew that would have been least familiar to young fans. (None of the “orphaned” episodes were available on video then, although I think the BBC had experimented with putting a few audio tracks out on cassette.) It’s hard to imagine what a young audience would have made of these bits, since there’s no background to bring them up to speed. It’s like the target audience for Apocalypse is twelve to fourteen year olds somewhere around 1972. If anyone ever invents a time machine, we can send copies of Apocalypse back to the Pertwee era and totally blow those kids’ minds.

Timewyrm: Exodus

All the early New Adventures read differently now than they did fifteen years ago, but Timewyrm: Exodus reads differently in two entirely opposite ways at the same time. In a way it seems much worse now, because in 1991 I had no idea how good the series was going to get. At the same time, Exodus is shockingly better than everything else Terrance Dicks has ever written. Is this the same guy who wrote The Eight Doctors and Warmonger? Terrance, what happened?

To kick off the New Adventures, Virgin Books drew on their stable of Target novelizers, who could be counted upon to deliver manuscripts on time and of technically publishable quality. It was inevitable that one of them would be Terrance Dicks. Dicks wasn’t just a Target writer–he was the Target writer, the most prolific novelizer in the bunch. In the Target days, the average Who fan’s personal library might be composed of at least forty per cent Terrance Dicks–more if he was a real weirdo. Month after month after month, Dicks extruded 128 pages of the literary equivalent of baloney on Wonder bread.

The prose in Timewyrm: Exodus is as bland as anything Dicks has written. He does little more than provide basic descriptions of settings, characters, and actions. Metaphor is absent. A lot of the adjectives are vague generalities like “incredibly” or “huge.” But in contrast with Genesys, this is competent bland prose. Dicks rarely lets the narrative point of view wander (although when it does it reads a lot like the POV in Genesys). Every sentence functions as it was meant to. The dialogue sounds more or less natural. Exodus is pretty artless, but written with care and a minimally acceptable level of craft.

Still, in retrospect, you can see the quirks that later took over Dicks’s writing. Like his fondness for recycling. Dicks uses his every idea over and over again until he’s run it into the ground. It’s amazing the milage he gets out of the things. His brain is the most efficient carburetor in the world. You could drop him into the jungle with nothing but a videotape of “The Five Doctors,” and when you came back in a month you’d find a thriving civilization of Terrence Dickses cloned from his fingernails, worshipping Borusa and fighting Nazis. After Exodus his books suffer from increasing nostalgia creep, but here he just brings back the War Lords, which works beautifully and was incredibly cool in 1991. I remember getting to the point where Kriegslier’s aide slips on a pair of glasses before questioning Ace, and suddenly realizing what was going on, and feeling terribly clever to have guessed. I was fifteen at the time, and probably needed a hobby.

Another Terrence Dicks trademark is the sudden descent into bathos when he deals with anything alien–like the Sontaran in The Eight Doctors who hopes that killing the Doctor will get him into the “Sontaran Hall of Fame”.1 Wild ideas, alienness and big SFnal concepts seem to freak him out. He’s only happy when he can tame them with a little jokey coziness. Here we have a “Gallifreyan Army Knife” and “Doctor Solon’s Special Morbius Lotion.” Just to reassure us that the Time Lords are regular guys, and not alien life forms with intellects vast, cool, and only semisympathetic.

“So what is Timewyrm: Exodus about?” you ask. Actually, you probably don’t, but I’m going to tell you anyway. It’s an alternate history novel. As you read this, please remember that there was a time when the words “alternate universe” did not provoke uncontrolled convulsive retching among Doctor Who fans.2 Alternate history is an old and honorable subgenre in the wider world of speculative fiction, large enough to have its own cliches, including worlds where the Confederacy won the Civil War, worlds where a popular historical figure is working an incongruous job,3 worlds where contemporary people are thrown back in time and lord it over the natives through superior know-how and gumption, and Harry Turtledove.

Inevitably, Doctor Who’s first proper alternate history4 was the biggest cliche of them all: the world where Germany won World War II.

This scenario is nearly the first thing anyone will come up with if you mention alternate history. Why this creepy trope should have a white-knuckled death-grip on the collective unconscious is a question requiring essays of its own. Still, that’s no reason not to throw out a half-assed theory here. It’s worth pointing out that the formative years of science fiction–when it became defined as a genre separate from the larger mass of fiction–included the 1940s. With 60 years of hindsight, we’re used to thinking of the Allied victory as inevitable–so it’s easy to forget that the people actually living through the war couldn’t be sure of anything.5 They could only hope for the best… and sometimes, probably, fear the worst. Fears that the war effort might go wrong would have given that first generation of SF pulp ghetto dwellers a good few churned stomachs and sleepless nights. So after it was all over they worked their fears out in their fiction, and passed them down to the next generation.

Terrance Dicks lived through the WW2 era, too, but this nightmare is a little different. Dicks’s Nazis haven’t just conquered England. They’ve conquered the cozy cartoon England of early 1970s Doctor Who. This is the England populated entirely by comical rustics, government bureaucrats, businessmen, and scientists wearing turtleneck sweaters and black horn-rimmed glasses; all of whom live either in London or one of a number of small rural villages, connected by narrow, deserted highways. The resistance fighters could be the local poacher and his wife in any episode from 1970 to 1977. There’s even an incongruously amiable bobby so dense he never wonders why Ace doesn’t seem to know the most basic facts about occupied London.

And yet this isn’t quite a cozy cartoon fascist state. It comes close, of course–Dicks has problems imagining anything entirely not cozy, so his occupied England is ruled by reassuringly befuddled stooges whom the Doctor can run big sweeping rings around. But it’s about as close to a brutally realistic fascist state as Dicks is ever going to get. He seems to have done some research about how someplace like this might work, just as John Peel did his research on Mesopotamia for Genesys. That’s one of the really striking differences between the New Adventures and the BBC Books–the BBC Books often gave the impression that the authors’ research consisted of going for a beer, flipping on “Survivor: Beirut,” and trying to remember what they heard thirty years ago in Mrs. Peebles’s fourth grade Social Studies class. Most of the New Adventures, even the lesser entries, look like someone thought about them.

But this is only half the book–Dicks wrote two substories, like a pair of Target 128-pagers stuck together. Having outwitted the local collaborators, the Doctor travels back to the war to correct the timeline–and discovers that the War Lords were helping Hitler’s rise to power all along. Observing a Nazi rally, the Doctor insists that it’s been “‘Arranged, preplanned–by someone with a very sophisticated knowledge of the psycho-dynamics of crowds. Knowledge that doesn’t really belong in this century.’” This is completely asinine… and also incredibly tasteless. And yet, somehow, not many of Exodus’s readers seem to have been offended. There are at least a couple of reasons why this might have been the case. For one thing, Doctor Who fans have a certain amount of permanent goodwill for Terrance Dicks. No matter what drivel he comes up with, the fans treat him like their favorite old uncle, who might sometimes embarrass them but is still family. Also, we’ve seen this kind of thing before, in mirror-image.

In 1968, Erich von Daniken published Chariots of the Gods?, in which he argued that the greatest accomplishments of ancient civilizations were all down to the intervention of space aliens. Native American earthworks? Built to be seen from space. Egyptian pyramids? Put together with anti-gravity devices. Apparently aliens have nothing better to do than cross millions of light years to play Lego with big rocks. It was crappily pseudointellectual drivel… but it was also a bestseller. The public ate it up. A lot of people like to believe that history is progress, a straight line that moves from less advanced to more, and the knowledge that these “primitive” people, unaided, accomplished feats that would stump later civilizations doesn’t fit. Von Daniken’s theories were wish fulfillment. They seemed to make history make sense.

Doctor Who ate this stuff up, too. After Nigel Kneale plagiarism, von Danikenism was 1970s Doctor Who’s biggest cottage industry. Egyptian religion, Greek myth, Scottish monster legends–everything in history was caused by aliens. Von Danikenism even showed up in stories that didn’t depend on it, like “Death to the Daleks,” which insists, for no relevant reason, that the Incas were too stupid to come up with their own architecture. There’s a major difference, of course–Doctor Who’s writers and viewers understood that this was fiction. But my point is that seeing von Daniken’s influence over and over again in Doctor Who made it familiar, almost expected. After a while, seeing it again wouldn’t even register. Which makes it easy to slip increasingly weird variations on von Daniken past the audience. And this is why the premise of Exodus failed to offend most of the readers. Most readers didn’t think about it, maybe didn’t even notice it. It was von Daniken again, and he’s part of the furniture.

In Timewyrm: Exodus we again have aliens interfering in human history–not to improve the old, “less advanced” societies, but to worsen a modern civilization in 20th century Europe. And, in a way, it’s wish fulfillment again, because no one likes to think that human beings could be responsible for the grotesque evils of Nazi Germany. It’s upsetting to realize that the Germans who participated in–who even stood by and permitted–these crimes were ordinary people. Exodus presents a fantasy world where that guilt is taken away, displaced onto an alien intruder. “This can’t be us doing this,” Terrance Dicks says. “This isn’t the human race I know.” Which would be a pleasant thing to believe. Dicks is imagining a world where evil comes from outside, where ordinary people are, absent intervention, just not that depraved. But the idea that humans aren’t capable of this kind of evil is a fantasy… one as misleading, in its own way, as the fantasy that humans aren’t capable of the good things built by the Egyptians or the Incas.

  1. Presumably located in Branson, Missouri. ↩

  2. The “Alternate Universe” story arc was an Eighth Doctor storyline that lasted from Time Zero in September 2002 to Timeless in August 2003. It may not be quite the worst stretch of books the BBC ever published, but it’s up there. Or possibly down, as the case may be. The effect was heightened because the arc started at about the same point that the EDAs went from monthly to bimonthly publication, stretching a six-month story out to the length of a year. ↩

  3. The August 1993 issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction featured, I swear to God, two stories in which Fidel Castro became a professional baseball player, both of which had been submitted to the magazine at the same time. ↩

  4. Aside from “Inferno,” which featured an alternate universe but not enough historical speculation to really count. ↩

  5. Something that was also played up in “The Empty Child”/”The Doctor Dances.” ↩