As contemporary reviewer Finn Clark points out, there tend only to be two different types of alternate realities, the totalitarian regime and the post-apocalyptic horror and after The Domino Effect’s attempt at the former it is a bit dispiriting that we’ve plunged into the latter so soon and just as David Bishop covered all the tropes of the former almost the point of recreating the Worm that Turned from The Two Ronnies (which was set in 2012), so Walters gives us almost every element of the other genre, with religious zealotry, medievalism, cannibalistic mutants, cannibalistic outlaws, morally ambiguous leadership and a technologically superior class (albeit embodied by a single person) who has all the answers.
At least, unlike The Domino Effect, when faced with the (alternate) reality of this, the Doctor and his pals grok the situation immediately and have the conversations they should have been having at the top of the previous two books. But there’s a sense of déjà vu as they’re dragged through this new world, into Totterdown near Bristol, the main town in which the story is set with its muddy, rundown architecture and fruity-smelling population though in fairness the author describes such things with relish, especially the inn where they spend the evening. The drinking holes in these novels are always vividly drawn for some reason. The author says he lives in the real Totterdown, “it’s nothing like the place described in the book”, he says in his bio, “(except on Saturday nights).”
As the cover indicates, it’s the point of divergence, which offers some variation with the introduction of some celebrity sparkle in the form of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, who unwittingly is one of the catalysts towards the world’s destruction and finds himself as temporary companion for the Doctor as he works to set the timeline straight. He’s rather in the position of HG Wells in Timelash though; the story doesn’t particularly pinion around him, he could in theory be any Victorian philanthropist, though it’s nice that Kenneth Branagh’s finally been given a part in the franchise (at least in the version I had playing my head).
I expect my main issues are as follows. Firstly, the story arc continues to be a mess. Now we’re back to something akin the mission outlined in Time Zero, with the Doctor attempting to put histimeline back in primary position but there’s now a hint that the threat is from real world quantum physics with an infinite number of timelines threatening to collapse in on themselves. Or something. I don’t know. But neither Anji or Fitz seem on board with the mission, complaining that it means that none of the people they meet and become friends with will continue to exist, even though Anji’s main goal is to return to her own 2003 in her own universe. Sometimes.
At various points both Anji and Fitz turn against the Doctor for his treatment of the people he meets some of whom in theory die at his hands as he pursues his goal channelling his earlier self in some respects, and although it’s true he comes across as a bit of a heartless bastard, as he says they wouldn’t have existed in the first place if the timelines hadn’t been interfered with. The greater good and all that. To an extent that’s a problem for the reader too in relation to our enjoyment of the novel since none of the characters beyond the TARDIS team will have more than a conceptual happy ending. But in series fiction, characters don’t tend to return anyway so we shouldn’t necessarily be worried about temporal bloodbaths, but we do. It’s odd.
If you thought that last paragraph was confusing you should try reading the last hundred pages of this book which is chock full of Moffatesque time paradoxes and temporal engineering and the Doctor conveniently forgetting which universe he’s in and universes collapsing and various versions of characters running around and trying not bump into one another (in ways which make Mawdryn Undead look as simplistic as a strip in TV Comic). Even as I write this, I’m still not sure how things resolved themselves though I think it involves something akin to the paradox machine in Last of the Timelords. I can follow River Song’s timeline perfectly well but not this and it’s all written down.
Apart from Brunel, none of the characters are that interesting either. There’s a Brontesque object of desire called Aboetta, who spends much of the novel trying to decide if she’ll stay with an expositional poet, Malahyde who’s the other reason for this apocalyptic world or one of the security guards at Totterdown in what amounts to an even muddier version of Wuthering Heights, an outlaw priest whose as mental as Owen Teague in Torchwood’s Countrycide and a rabble of similar humans. Even Fitz is rendered a bit blandly, becoming part of apocalyptic world and forgetting the Doctor, Anji and his adventures in the TARDIS but not for long enough that when he returns with his memory split in half we can really understand his existential crisis.
Yet, oh yet, there are many worthwhile moments. At a certain point, Anji and the Priest find themselves trapped in a dying reality that seems to consist only of a beach, a cliff and a florescent sea and Walters perfectly captures their hopeless loneliness. When a younger Malahyde becomes lost in the TARDIS, he meets a luminous girl who takes case of him who’s otherwise not appeared in the story who I’m betting is probably Trix stowing away and biding her time in what’s probably my favourite scene of the book (and funny how that happens). Plus there’s a genuinely exciting action sequence in the remnants of Bristol when the mutant cannibalists attack and our heroes become separated.
Plus the reason for apocalypse is logically thought through, with everyone on Earth forced to age forty years leading to only the children surviving in adult bodies and those lucky enough to have something like an education passing down what understanding they possibly have from an 1840s education. But again, like The Domino Effect, I would have liked to have seen how this panned out globally or out in the universe. Like that previous book, it's almost as though these events have existed in isolation and no consideration is given as to how the Cybermen might be interested in a planet like this Earth which could barely throw up much of a resistance if it wanted to storm in a steal the minerals.
In the end I’m still just sort of well yeah hum. It’s not awful, it is at least readable, there’s some nice character business here and there, the story joins itself up even if it doesn’t really hold together at the end, it’s just sort of, well, yeah, hum. Perhaps the characterisation of the Doctor just rubbed me up the wrong way. It is odd how reckless he is with human life, at least one death happening in such a way that we’re not sure if he knows his volunteer isn’t going to survive and although it’s brave to throw the moral quandary in the reader’s face, it does seem strange that the author engineers his story so that this TARDIS crew are divided in a way which is similar to the New Adventures. At least there’s no Sabbath in this one.