Books Sometimes, for those of us who haven’t read these Eighth Doctor novels before, it’s easy to forget just how post-modern and experimental they became, especially having listened to the far more conventional audio exclusives based on nunuWho, and that’s even having read the Lawrence Miles novels and everything which fell out after them. Dave Stone’s The Slow Empire has it all, from first person narrative sections by a non-companion printed in Comic Sans, to a virtual reality section in which Fitz's part is written in the style of rock biography to authorial interventions in a footnotes section. I gather the main narrative was also inspired by an online discussion about quite how Transmats work.
Sometimes such messy inspiration can be really entertaining and sometimes it can feel to the reader as though they’re being subjected to some in-joke they’ll never get. Which was I? Weeee’ll, the actual story idea is a inspired. The TARDIS is chased into materialising by a race of predators that live in the time vortex and find themselves in the middle of a massive, previously unknown empire of worlds which are connected via machines that transmit souls hither and thither, reconstituting new bodies at destinations but which otherwise have little communication and so all think they’re at the centre controlling the others, providing some kind, of as the book synopsis suggests, “malign” control.
Inevitably, having ascertained something has gone wrong, the Doctor starts acting strangely as do his companions and through what appears to be a caravan narrative (cf, The Keys of Marinus), they investigate the empire and try to discover the cause of an underlying ennui which has spread across this portion of space. Along the way they pick up an inhabitant, Jamon De La Rocas, a transmat traveller of prosaic voice, and source of the first person passages and a Collector, a kind of squid-like kleptomaniac who race previously appeared in one Dave Stone’s earlier novels Heart of the TARDIS (which I’m yet to read). And so there are adventures, lots of running, arguing, cultural exchanges, the usual Doctor Who business.
I think it’s best to say I didn’t not enjoy it. Stone has in mind to comment on the nature of Doctor Who as a meta-narrative in a similar way to Miles and Magrs and later Moffat, amongst others and because in the latter stages, the story begins to focus on that via some excellent speeches for Anji, I turned the last few pages with plenty of goodwill. If the characterisation of the Eighth Doctor feels a bit schematic and unnatural, that might be because of his raggle-taggle amnesiatic condition rather than some authorial shortcoming. Certainly this is a rare occasion when Anji feels like a three dimensional being so he’s certainly capable of the other thing.
Stone does enjoy world building, offering some of the most epic, if horrific scenes the Doctor's ever visited. As the TARDIS bounces around the empire, the effect is rather like flicking through the covers of a record collection from an Iron Maiden album to something more prog rock (probably by ELO and no, not Mr Blue Sky), hallways filled with bondage slaves and hippy infested forests. He also enjoys recreating sections of the TARDIS, with the introduction of a viewing portal so that passengers can meditate on the vortex in a similar way to the crew of the Icarus in Danny Boyle's film Sunshine.
Despite that the problems are two fold. Firstly, the sections narrated by De La Rocas are written in a, well I’m not sure actually prosaic captures it, over extended Edwardian voice, extending themselves rather too long in a style which is too pleased with itself to be enjoyable so that skimming’s the only real option. Secondly, as I suggested above, there’s the ever present feeling of having missed something important, that the author’s winking at his audience, an audience which ten years ago would have been absolutely certain what he was doing and now just feels bewildered, some of which is explained in the footnotes but mostly not.
Some authors have a singular voice and if you’re not entirely appreciative of that voice it doesn’t necessarily mean anything. It’s not bad, certainly not in the way that some of the earlier Dalek novels in this series were bad, or indeed some of the earlier novels in general. And there’s what must be some obvious foreshadowing for coming attractions which gave me goose pimples. Who could he be? What could that mean? That sort of thing. It’s just that sometimes, a story benefits from a more orthodox approach and perhaps that could have been the case here. Now just be pleased I couldn’t work out how to post this in Comic Sans as homage.