Tag Archives: Timewyrm

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.” ↩

Timewyrm: Genesys

Just to have something to post tonight, here’s a review of a _Doctor Who_ tie-in novel, which I originally posted on a mailing list. I have a couple more half-written which may show up here eventually, if I can make myself finish them.

In 1991, Virgin Books, who owned the Target Books imprint, ran out of televised Doctor Who stories to novelize. Fortunately, there was a way to keep the cash flowing: start a series of original novels, called the New Adventures. Even more fortunately, the BBC seems to have had a lackadaisical attitude towards the Doctor Who license. The New Adventures suffered from relatively little corporate oversight and interference, and for a while became something more interesting than the usual TV tie-in pap.

You wouldn’t guess any of this from John Peel’s Timewyrm: Genesys. But it is the first in the series, so bear with me while I discuss this dreary, half- assed little mediocrity in far more detail than it deserves.

Timewyrm: Genesys reads almost like fan fiction. The NAs were often called fan fiction by grumpy Usenet cranks, but this one really does come off as fanfic. It’s a fan’s idea of a generic Doctor Who story: A historical setting (ancient Mesopotamia) is invaded by an evil alien (Qataka) posing as an entity from human myth (Ishtar), who is defeated by the Doctor with the help of a famous guest star (Gilgamesh). This mass of cliches is mixed with some odd ideas, the first being the decision to start the book with the Doctor accidentally wiping Ace’s memories. There is a reason for this–it’s the first New Adventure, and this was an excuse for Peel, in the optimistic assumption that readers entirely new to Doctor Who might give the book a try, to have the Doctor explain the premise of the series. But it’s a very weird way to do it. It means we get two sequences within a few pages in which we’re introduced to a mysterious, unnamed, and therefore uninteresting viewpoint character–the first being the villain, the second being one of the regular cast. And these hypothetical new readers would have been baffled a few pages later when, in an act of blatant fanwank, the TARDIS sends the Doctor a “message” consisting of random video clips of old companions.1 They’d have been even more lost during the book’s climax when the Doctor, for no logical reason, suddenly announces that he’s going to channel a previous incarnation and starts acting like Jon Pertwee.

After what feels like fifty chapters of setup, the Doctor arrives in Mesopotamia. There’s one good thing about this book: John Peel did his research. He goes to some trouble to make ancient Mesopotamia foreign. This would not always be the case–by the BBC books era, most of the alien planets and historical eras felt a lot like contemporary Earth. On the other hand, sometimes it’s a little too obvious Peel’s done his research, and he comes off like a tour guide who keeps tugging at your sleeve to deliver another fun fact. And Mesopotamia is never as amazing and exotic as it should be because the entire book is written in a flat, affectless prose reminiscent of a sixth grade social studies textbook, and it sucks the life out of everything.

Including the characters. Gilgamesh, the historical guest celebrity of the week, is a cardboard drunk. Ishtar is a ridiculous Snidely Whiplash villain. As for the dialogue… well, at the beginning of Chapter Five, Enkidu, last of the Neanderthal race and companion to the legendary Gilgamesh, manages within a single page to say both “I’ve got a very bad feeling about this” and “It’s too quiet.” Meanwhile, Ishtar is given to statements like “‘Ah… morality. The weakness that marks the fool from the genius.” I don’t know how this stuff comes out of John Peel’s head. This is a man with a successful writing career, for certain values of “successful” and “writing.” I assume he has opportunities to observe and talk to people. Yet he writes with the insight into character of some guy living in a basement whose only social interactions are with his X-Men action figures. The impression is exacerbated by the weird, unpleasant, adolescent prurience that lies just beneath the surface of Peel’s Doctor Who work. (See also War of the Daleks.) At one point he manages to make even the Doctor sound like a dirty old man: “‘I like things to be tidied up and smelling pretty.’ He smiled at the young priestess. ‘Like this young lady.’”

Yuck. Thanks a lot, John–it’s going to take me years to scrub that line out of my brain.

So far, this is all just bad writing… but there are a couple of stylistic quirks I want to take a closer look at. Partly because they tell us something about this particular book, but also because they’re going to come up again. And again.

First, John Peel has some terrible problems with point of view. At times he appears to be trying to write in third person limited, but he doesn’t stick to one character for any length of time. The narrative point of view jumps from head to head like a hyperactive louse, occasionally slipping into third person omniscient. This can get confusing, as it sometimes takes a moment to realize you’re suddenly reading a new character’s thoughts.

So you can see what I’m talking about, let’s look at a passage from Chapter Eight which, up to this point, has been told from the POV of one of the temple priestesses:

Lost in her thoughts, En-Gula almost screamed when a strange figure stepped out of the shadows and politely raised his hat.

“Good evening,” the Doctor said, blessing her with his best smile. “I do hope I’ve not called at an inconvenient hour?”

Realizing that this strangely-attired little man could not be one of Ishtar’s messengers sent to call her to retribution, En-Gula managed to catch her breath.

You might wonder how En-Gula knows that this “strange figure” is the Doctor, especially since she immediately thereafter forgets, and can only identify him as a “strangely-attired little man.” What’s going on here?

The answer is that she doesn’t know. The first and third paragraphs are En- Gula’s POV, but the second paragraph isn’t–in fact, it isn’t the POV of anyone in the novel at all. It’s the POV of the audience watching the imaginary TV episode in John Peel’s head. It knows that this is the Doctor because it can see him, and unlike En-Gula it’s been watching the show from the beginning.

Peel can’t maintain a constant POV because he’s transcribing an imaginary television show. He follows what the camera shows him. He focuses on the Doctor when the camera does. He switches to Ace’s POV when the shot changes. He switches to third person omniscient when no one character dominates the scene. Think of his prose as an unconscious shooting script, and a lot becomes clear.2

Problems with point of view came up repeatedly in the Doctor Who novels, but not in every book. Another of Timewyrm: Genesys’s stylistic quirks would prove near-universal among Who fiction. It’s the way the novel is broken up into a series of short passages–ranging from a few paragraphs to a few pages–which intercut between different characters and plot strands. Unlike the roving point of view, this isn’t really a problem. Lots of good Who novels were written like this. But that’s because–and this is the striking thing–almost the entire series is written like this. And after a while you realize that it’s less a deliberate stylistic choice than an unconscious assumption that this is what a Doctor Who book looks like.

Again, to understand where this comes from we have to look to television. The New Adventures, for all their newfound length and eventual sophistication, were still the mutant children of the Target books. In the Target days the short scene format made it easy to novelize a television story: one scene in the script became a few paragraphs in the book. The first three original novels were all by former Target writers, and the generation of new writers who started with Paul Cornell were fans who’d absorbed the Target style into their psyches. No one ever questioned that this was the way to write Doctor Who. A lot of good novels were written like this, so obviously it didn’t hurt the series too much… but it’s interesting that this style was still the standard as of the final BBC past Doctor novel, Atom Bomb Blues–which also has the same floating POV problem as Timewyrm: Genesys, probably for the same reason. Virgin Books may have advertised the New Adventures as “too broad and too deep for the small screen,” but it seems the Who books never entirely managed to separate themselves from their television origins.

  1. The most interesting thing about this bit is the implication that the TARDIS likes to record videos of the Doctor’s companions screaming in fear. ↩

  2. This kind of thing actually turns up a lot in bad fiction these days, and there’s a good explanation of this in an essay at the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction website; it’s partway down the page under the heading “The Voyeur Camera.” ↩