And so we head to our shelves and the internet for entertainment and here I am catching up with Kate Orman (and Jon Blum)’s The Year of Intelligent Tigers another in the long series of Eighth Doctor novels. The novel opens with team TARDIS ensconced on the island planet Hitchemus in which a colony consisting almost entirely of musicians are smugly entertaining one another thanks to a state benefits system which rewards the creative. Adding to the hippy spirit which pervades proceedings, many of the inhabitants are keeping tigers as pets but before long it becomes apparent these cats aren’t quite as domesticated as they thought, the title of the novel offering some indication as to the story’s direction of travel.
Having enjoyed all of the author’s previous novels, even the highly underrated Seeing I, I’d rather been looking forward to seeing how Orman (and Blum) would tackle the post Earth arc Doctor, with his amnesia and counterfeit confidence. Reviews elsewhere hold the novel in very high regard with words like “masterpiece” thrown around. This is Doctor Who dipping its toes in the genre/literary fiction hybrid, structuring the story around the movements of a song with action sometimes suggested impressionistically in the hopes of elevating the material above the typical adventure romp, just the kind of thing for whom I’m precisely the target audience.
Unfortunately I parted company with proceedings after about fifty pages. The opening of the novel beautifully the atmosphere of Hitchemus, music spilling out of every dwelling, the sense that this is a world that thrumbs with the stroke of a plectrum, its rhythms timed by a swing of a maestro's baton. But soon the plot proper kicks in, the tigers mount an invasion of the colony and we’re thrust into what amounts to a procrastinating rerun of Doctor Who and the Silurians with the amphibians replaced by the cast of Big Cats Live, with Doctor and his companions joining opposite sides, the tigers and their oppressors. I bored quickly.
My objections seem to coalesce around two of Orman’s choices. Firstly, and perhaps this is because of my natural aversion of felines in general, I quickly tired of the tigers as a race, the endless descriptions of their fur, the running, the jumping, the messing about with musical instruments as they attempt to learn more about the human’s primary occupation. The author admittedly works hard to give the individual tigers strong personalities, but my ability to cope with this kind of anthropomorphism begins and ends with The Lion King and my imagination simply couldn’t quite muddle through the tigers holding long conversations not unlike the wolf summit from Twilight’s Breaking Dawn.
Secondly, from the off, Orman’s approach is to keep the Time Lord a remote figure. He’s described from the POV of local inhabitants, his companions and the tigers, the motive being to underscore his alieness because we’re not sure what he’ll do next, if he’s really favouring the tigers or the humans. Logically, as the Silurians stories suggest, he’s favouring the group who’s motive is most peaceful, but in this case neither side is particularly on the up and in joining the pack he appears to abandon his companions which for those of us who endured the Sam arc seems terribly out of character at least for this incarnation. He keeps Anji safe at one point, but mainly we’re in Mindwarp territory wondering why he’s acting this way.
Having spent the past few dozen novels with the Doctor largely as the viewpoint character, it’s a wrench. It doesn’t feel right. Indeed there are moments when it’s almost though he’s never met his companions before. I assumed it was due to some outside influence, that my Eighth Doctor would re-emerge wondering why the hell he’d shaved all his hair off, but eventually it becomes apparent this is how the author’s rationalising the amnesia, her flavour of the diplomacy Eighth’s supposed to be famed for communicated forcefully in a conclusion in which he literally imposes peace on the two groups, which I know is what he amounts to doing in plenty of other stories, but this suggests his seventh incarnation too closely for my tastes.
Perhaps it’s that Orman wants to have it both ways. Her approach to Fitz and especially Anji are more akin to the rest of the novels in the series, the latter receiving some much needed character development as she grasps the dislocation of time travel, of having to bluff through cultural references which rarely make sense. It’s in these moments I wondered if the literary material is in fact attempting to mask what’s otherwise pretty thin ideas, but knowing that this is an author whose work I’d enjoyed very much in the past, I know it can’t be that. It’s the process of trying to marry the requirements of one sort of storytelling with another, two forms which can’t easily be reconciled either on the page or in my head. Or both.