Audio Vikings. If there’s one great untapped human sub-culture in Who history, it’s Vikings, as though since The Time Meddler somewhat covered their contemporary history and The Curse of Fenric somewhat their legacy, they’ve been thought best left alone which is a fifty year long mistake because who doesn’t love Vikings? Well, the peoples they marauded and pillaged of course but as the underrated versus astronauts film Outlander (featuring Sophia Myles) demonstrated there’s long boats full of mileage in showing these relatively primitive beard growers in an exciting adventure with aliens. Add to the list J.T. (Jenny) Colgan’s Dark Horizons.
As the author herself described to this very blog, Colgan’s approaches Vikings through the mystery of the Lewis Chess men, who created them and their purpose. The Doctor bumps into these beautifully carved objects whilst travelling alone and searching for someone to have a game with. He pitches up in primitive Scotland in the middle of a Viking attack, which is quickly overcome with flames, a St Elmos Fire which almost destroys both attackers and attackees, generated by an alien force that typically the Time Lord finds utterly beautiful but can’t be reasoned with (not unlike some of his companions).
In other words, it’s a kind of celebrity historical with an important artefact in place of Alexander Graham Bell or some such, though the chess set really is more of a jumping of point. The real interest is in Freydis, a kidnapped princess and one of the islanders, her captor Henrik, who’re the Doctor’s temporary companions, providing an analogue of Amy and Rory’s rapport, she with the acerbic temper, he the streak of nobility. As they inevitably stumble into the Doctor’s technology, their mixture of boggled-eyed wonder and matter of fact appreciation provide some of the novel's funniest moments and their ensuing romance some of the most touching.
None of which really captures just how marvellous Dark Horizons is. If you’d told me this was the work of a veteran Who spin-off writer I would have believed you. But as the first attempt, it shows none of the jitters of some other A-list writers working the franchise and can slot comfortably in with some of the classics of the form. I should temper that by adding that it doesn’t reinvent the wheel, no epochs have been damaged in writing of this novel. But as an example of a spin-off work, it’s perfectly pitched, atmospherically described and has an understanding of the central character which even some of those veterans can often lack.
Tonally, the novel's slap bang right in the middle of the intended demographic of the new television series. There are deaths, which shouldn’t be too much of a spoiler, but they’re supernatural in origin and the creepiness is strictly in the teen horror category. When the Vikings do maraud, it's generally played for laughs; some darker themes do intrude, but they’re utilised educationally to demonstrate masculine dominance in this society, how the princess under normal circumstances isn’t allowed to decide on the pattern of her own life, sacrificed to make way for peace treaties between warring factions.
But this isn’t a history lesson. There’s real poetry hidden within these pages as Colgan captures these isolated specks of humanity in a world which is yet to be infested by too much civilisation, the harsh landscape itself a constant source of mild peril. In her interview, Colgan described how one of the challenges was dealing with meals and bed times, but they’re often the most involving, peoples gathered together considering their past and their fate, new alliances and old enemies made over dinner in the moon and torch light, with the Doctor in the midst of it all, thinking of his next move whilst simultaneous enjoying their company.
Indeed, it’s Colgan’s interpretation of the eleventh Doctor which deserves the most applause. Even in these later years, with Matt Smith’s magical portrayal, too often in these spin-off works he can still be a rather generic Time Lord or just sometimes the wrong Time Lord with authors imaginations still holding on to David Tennant’s manic energy and long constants. From his first scene, it's impossible not to think of Smith wearily glancing over his chessboard starved of company. Judging by the length of his hair on the cover and various hints we have to assume this is the older Doctor from late in the last series, his age weighing heavily on his shoulders.
Like Steven Moffat, Colgan’s also interested in the Doctor status as a mythical entity. Freydis identifies him with the norse god Loki, a trickster. The Doctor explains often and at length that he isn’t a god, and almost goes out of his way to prove it, as his magical cabinet fails him and his magic wand rarely works for the benefit of those he’s chosen to protect. Yet he still has god-like qualities, not least a moral need to be fair to all species, or at least give them a chance to do the right thing, a code which stretches from the settlers to the Vikings and the aliens. As usual he’s disappointed, but this quandary which adds some unexpected thematic depth to the novel.
One can only imagine what Smith would have done with the scenes in which the Doctor teaches one of the local children how to play chess and actor Neve McIntosh makes a decent attempt. Ironically, now that a Scottish person’s finally reading one of these audio books, Amy’s not on board but McIntosh is still the perfect choice given the locale, approaching the reading like a cool babysitter recalling a bedtime or even some old folk story, her gentle voice gaining just the right level of urgency when necessary and still sounding nothing like the various Silurians she’s played in the television series.
All in all, really good value. In the acknowledgements Colgan thanks fellow novelist Naomi Alderman (who recently had her own Who published) and Caitlin Moran (who should). With Stephen Baxter having a past Doctor novel published later in the year, there’s now a genuine sense that writing for this corner of the franchise is as much of an honour as for the television series and there are hints that the anniversary year will bring announcements of even more surprising signings. If they produces work as entertaining as Jenny Colgan’s that’s all to the good. Now I’m off to reacquaint myself with chess. Not that I was ever really very good at it.
Doctor Who: Dark Horizons is out now from AudioGo. Review copy supplied.