Kate Orman’s The Year of Intelligent Tigers is the book every Eighth Doctor Adventure wanted to be.
Every era of Doctor Who has its own stereotype. The Terrance Dicks/Barry Letts template includes UNIT, the Master, 1970s earth, chases, and Venusian Aikido. Hinchcliffe/Holmes stories are horror pastiches starring charismatic master villains; Saward-era stories are violent, cynical tales with a surfeit of tough guys and mercenaries. The EDA stereotype has an alien planet (usually a human colony) inhabited by a couple of squabbling factions, whose mistrust of the TARDIS crew hinders the possibly amnesiac Doctor’s efforts to save everybody from some hitherto-unsuspected threat (usually a forgettable alien monster).
The Year of Intelligent Tigers is about a human colony inhabited by a couple of squabbling factions (humans and Tigers), whose mistrust of the TARDIS crew hinders the amnesiac Doctor’s efforts to save everybody from the hitherto-unsuspected threat of an apocalyptic hurricane season. It’s the ur-EDA! But done with so much more skill it seems to have descended from some distant galaxy to let the children boogie. YoIT (YOIT! Great acronym!) is almost hard to review; I’m tempted to spend 1000 words just listing all the ordinary things YoIT gets right that other EDAs missed. But that would be unfair to a book that’s pretty incredible on its own terms. YoIT’s not a tie-in that rises to the level of an ordinary novel. It’s a smart, exciting, elegant science fiction novel in its own right, something you could give to anyone who loves SF whether or not they care about Doctor Who.
But I’ll probably keep making comparisons. Because I’m lazy, and because, honestly, the contrast really is incredible. Just look at the title. How could anyone see The Year of Intelligent Tigers emblazoned on the cover of a book and not immediately want to read it? (Titles are an Orman talent; she’s also the author of The Left-Handed Hummingbird and Walking to Babylon, and if I remember rightly also came up with the title of The Mary Sue Extrusion.)
Hitchemus puts flesh on the skeletal colony worlds of other EDAs. One of the odder assumptions behind Doctor Who is that events in a single city over a few days can control the destiny of its entire planet. Spark a quick revolution in the capital and continents fall. (Even on Earth—look at all the stories where conquest of London delivers the world into alien claws.) It’s magical thinking as sociology; a version of the folkloric law of contagion. Kate Orman (with Jonathan Blum, who receives a story credit) obviously thought through what such a planet would have to be like: a water world with a single island supporting one city, some ruins, and surrounding countryside. When your planet is built to the scale of an adventure, one adventure can decide its fate without destroying its credibility. And Orman and Blum thought about why Hitchemus exists; founded as a home for musicians, its economy runs on tourism. There’s a sense that this place has a life of its own. No wonder the TARDIS crew spend weeks on Hitchemus; it’s one of the few EDA worlds real enough to spend weeks on.
Hitchemus runs on music, and so does The Year of Intelligent Tigers. Few EDAs worked as hard to integrate a theme all through the book. A welcome side effect is that Fitz actually gets to be a musician for once. (I’ve noticed the best EDAs also seem to be the ones that remembered Fitz had a vocation beyond following the Doctor around and accumulating one-off girlfriends. I have no idea whether this means anything.)
YoIT compares Hitchemus, with human and Tigers in conflict, to a symphony fallen out of tune. The story begins with a literal symphony; the Doctor, searching for a purpose, has inveigled his way in as a violin soloist, and throws the orchestra out of whack with his undisciplined improvisation. Which is especially awkward, what with him dating the conductor.
This relationship is the one unconvincing part of Tigers, not so much because I can’t imagine the Doctor in a gay relationship than because the EDA Doctor was such an affected, artificial character I can’t imagine him in any kind of adult relationship at all. Most EDAs presented the Doctor as a collection of inane mannerisms around an empty core. Kate Orman’s brilliant, but even she doesn’t quite manage to throw off the weight of those other books. (To my mind the only EDA writer who entirely succeeded in making the EDA Doctor a fully-rounded character was Lloyd Rose, mostly because she didn’t shy away from writing large chunks of story in the Doctor’s point of view.)
It doesn’t help that the Doctor is so unusually childish in the first part of the book, in a way that just about crosses into “I don’t care what happens to this idiot” territory. What redeems this is that we learn why he’s behaving this way, and why the concert is so important—in fact, it’s the point of the book. It ties in with his amnesia—another thing Tigers handles better than most of its neighbors. We see flashbacks to his hundred-year exile on Earth which in a few pages suggest adventures more interesting than anything in the original arc. On a tramp freighter in the 1930s the Doctor discovers he can play the violin, and grabs hold of the fact like it’s the key to his identity. He plays in a storm, shouting to the lightning. Decades later he’s still holding on to the idea that maybe, if he plays his symphony, he’ll know who he is and what he was meant to do.
YoiIT uses the Doctor’s lack of his own cultural identity to emphasize his alienness—something the series often treats as little more than a source of suddenly-revealed superpowers—as he shuttles between the humans and the alien Tigers. When the Doctor lives with the Tigers, he adopts their body language, joining in their play-fighting. “Got your tiger skin on?” asks one. “I have a human skin to wear in the city,” says the Doctor, and we’re newly struck by the realization he’s not what he seems.
YoIT doesn’t wrap things up neatly. It’s not in any way cynical, and it doesn’t deny the reality of peace, love and understanding… but it’s mature enough to know these things take work and time to build, and don’t magically appear because some Time Lord’s uncovered and scuttled a Dalek plot. People aren’t instruments, it’s harder to tune a society than a symphony, and we learn what happens when the Doctor gets really fed up with people too stubborn to stop fighting.
But the Doctor’s come to understand something about who he is—and this ties in with The Slow Empire, the next EDA, already reviewed in issue two. It’s a rare case of a character developing smoothly across EDAs. In YoIT he realizes his purpose in life. In TSE he tries to apply what he’s learned: that he wasn’t meant to play the violin, but to conduct the lightning.