The Adventuress of Henrietta Street with much the same grim determination as my root canal surgery, the general fear and loathing of not really knowing what to expect and just wanting to get it over with and the relief that flows from the ensuing pain killers. Well, I’m post surgery and there’s certainly some relief and the surprising revelation that the experience was more painful for the Doctor than me. We’ll talk about why soon, but safe to say that as with all of Lawrence Miles’s previous novels for the range, we’re in narrative napalm territory and another dozen or so books filled with authors attempting to pick up the pieces. It’s the Who equivalent of Once More With Feeling without the songs. Or fun.
Before writing this, I looked over my lengthy review of Interference and to spoil the ending of what you’re about to read, I’m actually going to use exactly the same closing paragraph now as then because its equally applicable. I didn’t like the book and it’s for a similar set of very different reasons. At a certain point, about half way through, I knew that if this hadn’t been what it was and the implications it would have for the next set of novels, I would have abandoned it already. To an extent its Torchwood’s Miracle Day syndrome, where at a certain point you know you’re only paying attention because it’s Doctor Who, or part of the Doctor Who franchise. Surprisingly, given the complexity of the book, the process of explaining my objections are relatively simple. Which is good for me because this may not take too long to write. Spoilers ahead obviously.
Perhaps its important firstly to note, I’ve no problems with the “suggested” story. The Doctor and his companions emerge in London in the 1780s and take up residence in a brothel while they defend the planet from an invasion of apes, babwyns, who it seems are spilling out onto Earth via a portal after having infested the broken remains of Gallifrey. At a certain point we’re introduced to Sabbath, a human with his own time machine and as the Doctor becomes frail and afflicted with a malady realises it's because the Time Lord has severed his link to the his home world. Various shenanigans lead the Doctor to decide that if he marries a native of Earth, the titular adventuress, it’ll create a link to a different world, but Sabbath realises its more complicated than that and his cure will have serious ramifications for the future.
Phew. This is just the sort of epic stuff which is the stock in trade of the new television series and in places it almost feels like a trial run, with the first appearance of the “something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue” gag, a wedding utilising a female equal who bares not a little resemblance to River Song, a Doctor who knows he’s close to death making plans for it, a beard, sending out numbered envelopes, Gallifrey coming to Earth, a story unfolding across years and the assembling of an army from disparate factions to defend the planet when he lacks the strength. It’s also about the Doctor making Earth his adopted home for which he’s become the defender which is certainly one of the big themes in the RTD/Moffat era, the lonely God looking for somewhere to leave his fez.
Even the book’s major addition to the mythology (or retcon depending on your point of view) has a certain poetry to it. When we’re told in the closing moments that a Time Lord’s second heart is his connection to the Eye of Harmony back on Gallifrey, home literally being where the heart is, that redundancy is finally, rather magically “explained” and although as usually happens in this franchise its been thoroughly ignored in other iterations, it does add extra poignancy to the final moments of The End of Time when the Doctor has to send his home planet away again. It also sets up what must the major thread running through the final blast of novels, the story of the Doctor fighting to not only get his memory back, but his planet and even his heart. Would if grow back if he regenerated? Surely it must.
The richest of the characters is Scarlette, the brothel owner turned action hero who the Doctor obviously views as an equal and fits the silhouette of the River Song figure, though she clearly shares some DNA with Irene Adler of Sherlock Holmes fame. With her fiery red hair and temperament I cast Christina Hendricks for the part in my imagination and she is a rare example of a character in these novels who’s memorable enough to receive that treatment. One of the guests to the wedding is a “man in a rosette” who must be the Master and though his incarnation his barely described, Miles economically captures his glorious charisma in just a few short lines and it’s a genuine disappointment that he’s not in the piece for longer, given more to do.
The key addition to the franchise is Sabbath and because the novel’s ten years old, I’m not unaware of how the author feels about his subsequent treatment by his fellow novelists who turned him into a proto-Master, when his notion is a bit more complex than that. As his book enunciates, his character has in mind to fill the gap left by the Time Lords, appointing himself “time’s champion”. Nevertheless he’s still an ambiguous figure and when he “saves” the Doctor its for his own ends. That “black heart” which he whisks away after removing it from the Time Lord’s body isn’t some dead piece of alien flesh (which looks backwards towards Alien Bodies where even the Doctor’s corpse is an item of great power). What's here is intriguing but he's by no means a fully rounded character because ...
... my enmity is for the way the story’s written. Rather than simply offering all this as a fairly tradition piece of prose albeit with a few structural wiggles ala his previous novels, Miles renders it in the style of a contemporary popular history book written by an author who’s not terribly good at writing contemporary popular history books. Given the intelligence Miles has displayed elsewhere, that choice seems deliberate, bravely opening himself up to the kind of criticism levelled at the purposefully rubbish third act of Charlie Kauffman’s screenplay to Adaptation, in which readers (or viewers in that case) and critics alike might assume that it’s just badly written. I don’t think that. I think in those terms it’s very well written, an excellent representation of the kinds of volumes which used to turn up in the two for one offer at Waterstones.
A huge impressive achievement, except like all bad contemporary popular history book written by an author who’s not terribly good at writing contemporary popular history books it’s an awful read, just as Adaptation's final movement is an impossible watch. The haziness, hesitancy and obfuscation which can be inherent in the genre mean that the action is often difficult to follow as “Miles” as we’ll call this author within an author, pulls together the order of events from a series of contemporary accounts by the various characters including the Doctor and Scarlette, some named, others not, indicating that there’s no record of the truthiness of certain conversations or motives and there are sections which are clearly just plain unreliable if not also unreadable. Important action, which in more conventional novels should drive the story forward becomes buried under a pile of “we don’t really know what happened” non sequitors.
That becomes especially damaging in relation to the characters. For all the praise I’ve heaped on Scarlette as an idea, she never quite comes off the page as much as one would like because there are barely fragments of conversations between her and the Doctor and even then we’re told they’re not exactly what happened. Same for Sabbath. If the motive is put the reader in the position of author filling in the blanks he succeeds, but I’m a terrible writer and there’s little doubt from what is here that what he might have come up with would have been infinitely superior to my sub-Moffat, sub-Nolan, sub-Ephron noodlings. Doctor Who’s at its best when the characters are sharing witty or painful banter, laughing or breaking our hearts and that’s missing here. It’s why I prefer Robert Holmes and Douglas Adams to Eric Saward or Chris Bidmead.
Eventually that leaks into the story which for all my intellectual admiration never quite hits the emotional marks you’d want it to or imagine it would. Fitz and Anji in particular are shadows. One of the better sections is set in Manchester during a turf war between the prostitutes of the house on Henrietta Street and the locals but ultimately that just turns out to be an unnecessary interlude. Or at least seems to be. There’s also acres of philosophical and thematic noodling and dozens of characters, the wedding guests from the various corners of the world that potentially only exist as part of the apparatus of the chosen writing style and in some cases reference books which most of us haven’t read. Stuff happens. Then some more stuff and oh it’s the zero room, squee, and oh more stuff.
Which means what you’re inevitably left with in the end is a real marmite of a book, and certainly I have seen reviews online from people who adore the novel. I’m disappointed to say, that, despite usually championing the avant-guard, the post-modern, the experimental, the problem I have in the end despite having some wonderfully written passages and wanting to stretch the mythology of the series, experimenting with what’s there to create some new things, it doesn’t hang together as a coherent story. It’s too busy answering questions no one’s asked and presenting other quandaries, which subsequent authors are going to have to twist their brain in order to find a solution. It commits the sin of becoming too self-congratulatory, too convinced of its own brilliance and eventually gets lost up its own arse. Sorry Lawrence.