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.