Different types of stories are supposed to be tied to their respective television eras and Doctors. But imagine if, for whatever reason, BBC Books had decided to not publish past Doctor novels but fans had still wanted those kinds of stories, then Eighth would have to have been plunged into them anyway, trapped in a pastiche of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible perhaps or battling Chronovores in the time vortex. Would he be the same character or a kind of generic amalgam, readily transforming himself depending on the requirements of the adventure? The Eighth Doctor novels have been about what they’re not, rather than what they are, the reader buffeted about like the TARDIS in the time stream as the authors desperately grasp towards a answer that doesn’t exist.
Which is presumably why it’s interesting that, when challenging himself to pull together narrative strands and story arcs running all the way from the beginning of the line, Richards decides to offer something that’s both in some respects as traditional a piece of Doctor Who as is authorialy possible in these circumstances but also about as part of the Eighth Doctor strand as is achievable whilst still remaining entirely accessible and also in a strange way looking forward to possible official futures for other versions of the franchise. And I loved it. Loved, loved, loved it. Which is I know the kind of thing you write at the top of a paragraph, but from the moment I began reading on the bus into town (just after my Chrissie Hynde moment), the only time I could spare to put it down was while I was in Chester.
The opening actually has some similarities to the Sarah Jane Adventures story Lost In Time. The Doctor and his companions split off into different time zones to investigate historic events which are giving off huge amounts of temporal energy. There’s Fitz in 2004 attempting to gatecrash an exhibition opening (I know the feeling). There’s the Doctor watching someone not making an important scientific breakthrough. There’s Trix visiting the princes in Richard III’s tower (cf, Rani meeting Lady Jane Grey another ill-fated historical royal) and keeping them amused with a modified version of Cinderella in what’s probably one of my favourite scenes in all of these books. Doctor Who always seems to be at its best when it’s about the nature of fairy tales (“Aren’t we all?”).
Meanwhile we’re introduced to the Council of Eight who we’re to presume are the Time Lord replacements created when the diamonds were introduced to the big bang at the close of Timeless. Richards plays another blinder here by making them all something of one of the Doctor’s incarnations and writes each in the style of Hartnell, Troughton and the rest. That stops them from becoming too much like their local governmental counterparts on Gallifrey, though the scenes seem designed to deliberately ape the endless discussions in The Deadly Assassin, The Five Doctors and the like. Nevertheless, these are product of the Eighth Doctor line and Richards injecting some irony that for all the various races and time machines we’ve “seen” in the line all attempting to fill the gap left by the Time Lords, the Council was already in place.
Before long, everything culminates or seems to at the exhibition opening, which is being held at a Museum of Archaeology and the section which most resemble nuWho. You could imagine these scenes being partially shot at the National Museum of Wales, with Matthew Macfadyen cast as Professor Fleetward, the academic who aids the Doctor in assembling a crystal skeleton from pieces found across time and Mark Heap as the stuffy museum director. Or the other way around. Just like The Lazarus Experiment, the Doctor and his friends spend ages being chased by a monstrosity but like The Big Bang, their world has (somewhat) diminished to just outside the walls of the building. There are moments here, as the Doctor attempts to take charge of a public rabble, which are just the stuff of his Tenth edition.
Then the real coup as the novel doesn’t just begin to tie-up loose ends from the Eighth Doctor line but also the Past Doctor novels. Past Doctor novels which I haven’t read. Apart from Wolfsbane. But I’ve enough of an inkling of what happens in Bullet Time and elsewhere to know that that the Doctor’s companions were being offed and its here we find out why. One member of the Council, the figure analogous to Eight, Sabbath’s associate, has been pulling them from time because of the uncertainty they cause due to their association with the Doctor. The methodology is a mixture of murderous and mysterious but the solution, played out across several chapters is ingenious (even if I did manage to predict its main pillar) (not that it spoiled things at all).
It’s the EDA’s equivalent of Journey’s End or Neverland, probably entirely incomprehensible to newbees but satisfying payback to readers who’ve been following the novels from the start. Which isn’t to say it was adored on publication. Matt Michael in Doctor Who Magazine suggested it lacked a wow factor and sense of occasion. I disagree. In one section, Trix and the Professor are beamed into the far future to poignantly witness the big crunch with the keepers of the final museum in the universe (cf, The End of the World and Douglas Adams) something even the television series hasn’t tackled yet (though it's come perilously close on a few occasions). Plus there are a few significant deaths, permanent deaths, both horrible for different reasons.
Richards’s characterisation of the regulars is of a high standard too. In a rarity for this line, he happily has the three of them chatting away in the TARDIS console room, gently taking the piss out of each other, Trix having become a solid member of the crew despite her better nature. If Fitz spends most of the novel in Mickey/Rory-like bewilderment, Trix continues to quietly become one of the franchises most impressive companions, almost metafictionally aware that her disguise capabilities are not the norm, oscillating between being entirely confident of those abilities and waiting for someone to see through her mask. At the climax she’s afforded a punch the air moment as potent as Martha Jones’s giggle in The Last of the Time Lords. As it stands, it’s a tragedy that she’ll only be around for another six novels.
Sometime Never… was published at a strange moment for the franchise which is reflected within. The contents suggest that when he wrote it, the official future of Doctor Who was with the Richard E Grant vampiric version of the Ninth Doctor and there are scenes which are meant to tie-in with the simultaneously published novelisation of Scream of the Shalka, a point Richards underscores in a contemporary interview for DWM. Except in that same issue’s Gallifrey Guardian is an early chat with Russell T Davies on his plans for the series and so it’s also possible to conjecture that Richards wanted to clear out as many continuity cobwebs as possible to give the Eighth Doctor line more of a stand alone feel just in case new readers happen upon them in the bookshop. He was hedging his bets.
Except not everything is completely tied-up, still plenty for Lance Parkin to deal with in The Gallifrey Chronicles as and when. The Doctor is still an amnesiac even if he has a better understanding of himself and his potential past than before. Fitz is also still in flux, not quite sure of his own history. Gallifrey is still gone and Richards introduces a few new questions about that in Sometime Never… without making it too clear if they’re rhetorical or not, especially in relation to one of the deaths which I’ve been desperate to comment on but I don’t know who reads these reviews (or why) so I thought it best to keep on the left hand side of caution. But it will be good to get back to something akin to a more typical Who format, self contained stories which just happen to feature this TARDIS team, even if just briefly.