Vincent and the Doctor. The Time Lord and his friends are taking a break, sight-seeing in Paris in 1937 when they find that a masterpiece painting, in this case Picasso’s Guernica seems altered, in this case seems less intense. So they set off to investigate. But the possibility that this is to be some kind of celebrity historical about surviving Pablo ala Midnight in Paris is quickly dashed when a scene with the painter fails to happen and the Doctor decides that they must instead experience the Spanish Civil War for the themselves to see why the painter’s work has "changed".
What follows is a quasi-historical in the style of a 60s lessons of John Lucarotti, thoroughly researched, in which the nuts and bolts of what’s caused the change take a somewhat back seat to educating the reader on the causes of the war, of Guernica, of the precarious and confusing geopolitical situation and their aftermath. Not for nothing is the novel called History 101 and there is a reading and viewing list in the back which mentions Ken Loach’s Land and Freedom, a film I saw at university in the 90s with a packed audience and whose intensity was indelible, especially Ian Hart’s passionate speeches.
Which isn’t to say Halliday’s prose is heavy handed, this is still very much an action adventure and suspense novel, especially in the passages when Fitz is sent to the front to see Guernica for himself. The writing is particularly cinematic in the places where his story is intercut with the Doctor and Anji who’ve accidentally travelled five months earlier than their friend in time and have to wait in Barcelona to catch up with him. There’s a moment when the Time Lord is excited about a brilliant deduction and the very next paragraph quickly establishes Fitz at one of his lowest ebbs and the reader can imagine exactly how that mood change would occur on screen.
What the travellers discover, in their various ways, is that the perception of reality has fractured so that different perspectives on the same happenings or locations can exist simultaneously. Guernica was the result of enemy fire. Guernica was the result of so-called friendly fire. Guernica was an accident. Guernica was experienced with varying degrees of intensity and with different civilian losses, all at the same time. Time has taken on the elements of a cubist painting, as the cover indicates, with even people’s philosophical thought, strongly held political belief changing in an instant, sometimes with them not even being aware of it.
That leads to some fabulously poetic passages. When Anji visits a room whose décor is simultaneously different, flickering between like one of those children’s toys with a bird and cage printed on either side of a card to be spun by strings or earlier when she’s chased through the streets and finds whatever’s chasing her and the attitude of her companion become wrapped up in the unfolding terror. There’s also Fitz’s perception of Guernica in which he has to keep his eyes focused on the action so that he can report back to the Doctor, his loyalty to the “mission” overriding that part of him which knows there are certain images its impossible to forget.
History is, of course, all about perspective. There are hundreds of biographies of Shakespeare and most of them are about offering a different insight into the same evidence. A contemporary example would be how statistical expert Nate Silver, writing at the New York Times, put Obama’s chances of winning at 85% thanks to his state level numbers but the media persists in describing the US election as being too close to call or a toss-up. As Nate says, by acknowledging his figures, "you should abandon the pretense that your goal is to inform rather than entertain the public.” History will no doubt portray Obama as the favourite all along, despite Denver.
Back in the Whoniverse, also investigating these changes is a being called the Absolute, who like the bald antagonists in tv’s Fringe, observe the various threads of time, of a person’s life but finds himself surrounded by incongruities, unable to see the source and perhaps increasing the disturbance. Perhaps the Absolute exists as a comment on the Doctor’s thematic existence as a time space being, a disruptive element wherever he lands his TARDIS and however briefly. When the two time travellers inevitably meet, there’s a kinship, but the Doctor’s also drawn to him because he has the potential to unblock the secrets trapped in his brain.
But like I said, despite having all of these elements in the air, Halliday only mildly resorts to literary devices to tell her story with some interpolated diary entries from one of the characters the Doctor encounters which brings to mind The Turing Test and the repetition of some action written in different ways. You could imagine an extreme version of that written in the style of a Choose Your Own Adventure novel but with entries which still needed to be read in a linear fashion from cover to cover. It’s to the good that this is instead just a thumping good page turner rather than the academic exercise which has so often kyboshed some fairly decent story ideas.
If there’s a criticism, it’s that sometimes it is difficult to keep up with so many characters with so many behavioural changes and now and then characters pop in, characters which didn’t seem to exist before, and I wasn’t sure if I’d simply missed their introduction or it was part of the novel’s trick in elucidating the perception changes to wrong foot the reader just as the Doctor and his friends might be. There is also a certain element of the climax happening when required due to random inspiration rather than due to some natural causality. But the surrounding incident is involving enough that it doesn’t matter too much.
Perhaps Halliday’s biggest achievement is the Doctor, who’s not been this “present” for a few novels. Once landed the TARDIS locks him out, and he’s forced to confront an existence without this machine he still doesn’t fully understand or how to repair. The interior has become an abstraction and there are some beautiful details about his frustration with trying to get the thing to work ultimately through brute force. He’s also forced to confront his own existence as being clearly a being of great power and importance in the cosmos, but only at half power and unsure of what his place is, only shining brightly when he’s on the verge of a discovery.
Sabbath’s back too. Is he behind whatever’s effected Guernica? Is he also why so many of these stories are about time travel concepts? Despite him being across the whole of Henrietta Street, he still remains a relatively shadowy figure, his purpose unknown. As with the conclusion of Anachrophobia we’re left with questions, not least the contents of his conversation with the Doctor, who oddly feels very much like the junior partner. Miles has criticised the later authors for turning his creation into more of a classic antagonist. I think it’s simply that given the material they had, they’re going about the business of clarifying his characterisation.
Another quick project note: reading these novels in quick succession, its difficult to see them as anything other than one long group of stories. Unlike the tv series, even the audios, they don't necessarily have "seasons" so it's often difficult to look at them from the perspective of ongoing narrative shape or comparing them. Doctor Who Magazine once ran a history of the novels and artificially split them into seasons (does anyone have a copy of that handy?), and there are arguably some gear changes that work like season openers, but its interesting how those gear changes rarely become apparent without having actually read the things.