Disney bought Star Wars, I’ve been reading about another well loved sci-fi franchise meeting veil homages to characters from what seems like every animation house but Disney. But here we are, Steve Lyons’s The Crooked World, Doctor Who meets the Warner Bros owned properties including Hanna Barbara. Meep meep! Suffering Succotash! What’s Up Doc? Hayaaalp! I would have gotten away with it too … that sort of thing.
Of all these Eighth Doctor novels this is one of the outliers in terms of plausibility. The TARDIS lands in an animated world and the crew quickly meet Porky Pig (not), the Road Runner, Penelope Pitstop and the Scooby Gang, all called something else for copyright reasons. Quickly it becomes apparent that the cartoon laws of physics in this world mean death isn’t necessarily permanent. Except when it does and it become apparent that just by visiting, the Doctor and pals are at first subtly then with increasing pronouncement, they’re bring death and once absent philosophical thought. Free will.
In other words, the other ingredient is Pleasantville, Don Roos’s late nineties meditation on the loss of innocence in which two modern teenagers bring colour and profound changes to the world of a 1950s US sitcom. Lyons brings roughly the same trajectory here: violence, a breakdown in the rule of law and sexual awakening and like the characters in that film, the Doctor sees it as his duty to steer these once innocent creatures through to finding their own independent thought, that their disruption is a benefit rather than a curse.
As in some of his previous works, notably The Witch Hunters, Lyons has great fun reimagining existing properties within the rules of the Whoniverse. His Tom is a triumph. Given his original name, Jasper, we watch a wordless cat experience a profound existential crisis that ultimately leads to horrific consequences. Similarly, his Penelope Pitstop, or in this case Angel Falls, doubts the pieces of her lifestyle. Why does she race each day? What does her life consist of trying to avoid the Hooded Claw / Masked Weasel?
The pickle they wrestle with is why their lives consist of repetitious action, why do they never progress? Lyons amusingly blows that back on the regulars. Time and again we’ve seen the Doctor arrive in some time or place and cause disruption through his mere existence and here he is again doing same. Fitz isn’t complete unless he’s fallen for and bedded some local and before long Angel Falls’s name become dripping with irony. Anji once again spends most the adventure alone with some new friends getting to the heart of what’s ultimately happening.
If there’s a problem with the book, it’s that once you’ve made the Pleasantville connection, there’s no real further twist that turns the story on its head. There are some great incidents, the bloody aftermath of a riot with a welcome death, a courtroom scene and the pitch perfect (affectionate) parody of the Scooby gang, but I expect your tolerance for much of the novel depends on your tolerance for visiting morally ambiguous versions of best loved funny animals from your childhood. I’m not sure I was entirely engaged.
Plus I’m not convinced that even the Eighth Doctor would engage with the world in this way. I’m sure he’d more likely have Anji's motivation here of wanting to know how this world exists and do so up front, rather than acting like a Star Trek Captain who’s inadvertantly broken the prime directive and is trying to make the most of it by teaching the planet’s inhabitants. Like The City of the Dead or Grimm Reality, the Doctor takes a very lackadaisical approach to the rational Whoniverse, essentially saying, well there’s a multiverse of possibilities out there. No Land of Fiction, this.
But as always I applaud Lyons for trying to do something new and even attempting to produce a rational reading adaptation of Chuck Jones’s action sequences. As kids of a certain age will know, this isn’t the first attempt at novelising Loony Tunes, Tom & Jerry or Scooby-Doo but it is a rare occasion that an author attempts to bring psychological depth to the characters. But throughout I couldn’t help wishing I was simply just watching these old cartoons. For all their repetitive action they could be extremely funny.