A Sound of Thunder and Kilworth’s Let's go to Golgotha are cautionary tales against interference, whereas Who, for much of the time, is an active argument for intervention, so long, as the Doctor is keen to point out, you know what you’re doing. Paul Leonard’s The Last Resort confronts that genre communication head on with a bit of a head-scratcher that’s sometimes baffling, sometimes brilliant.
The story begins in the middle. The Fitz and Anji are investigating the Good Times travel agency which is taking tourists back in time to the more interesting parts of world history, Ancient Egypt, the Wild West, the Tudor period, that sort of thing. Except they’re treating them like modern destinations, creating resorts with time ports, hotels and modern infrastructure and on the assumption that it isn’t their own past have created instabilities in the timeline which are apparently allowing travellers form other dimensions to fall through too.
Except some of that may be true, because after a couple chapters the novel begins again with, identical chapter numbers, some of the same action in a slightly different order, as we see the many deaths of one of the interlopers, Jack, an amateur teenage time traveller from Mars whose intervention we assume must be one of the reasons this reality is in a mess. There’s also Iyeeye, a Leela-like primitive with time sensitive gills who also manages to throw herself back through chronology into this mess, everything creating ripples, ripples, ripples which lead to the destabilization of time.
In other words, this isn’t a novel with a beginning or middle and only a hazy notion of what a conclusion is for. In places its rather like reading a Choose Your Own Adventure novel in order (which is a surprise given what I said during my History 101 review) or watching Alejandro González Iñárritu’s 21 Grams with its complicated flashback and flashforward structure as we’re forced to piece together what caused this mess, what’s motivating the characters and understand why there are multiple versions of our heroes running around.
The obscurity of this is purposefully increased by Leonard’s decision to provide the story from the point of view of the Jack and Iyeeye or the Doctor’s companions none of whom are entirely privy to the Doctor and Sabbath’s plans (yes, he’s back) and exactly what’s happening and why. It’s a brave move but often incredibly frustrating, as though a much longer novel has had all of its more important exposition and action chopped out which sometimes has the effect of making this reader concentrate so much on each scrap of information, he forgot to become involved in the story.
So like an Alan Renais or Andrei Tarkovsky film, you let actions and images wash over you in the hopes that some of it will stick and make sense. In places, whole chunks of text are repeated which is a great way to fill pages but never quite seems skippable since the author obviously wishes us to notices the subtle differences between. We’re also unsettled by the non-appearance of the Doctor for half the novel too. Seems strange to have a Doctor-lite episode in text form, though it does increase the climate of fear. Perhaps I'm a traditionalist, but I like my Time Lord front and centre unless production requirements work against it.
For all that, did I enjoy The Last Resort? Bits of it. The idea of the past literally becoming another country to be visited is a good one, But it’s also strong enough to have been used in a story with far less complexity than this and so the implications of it aren’t really explored to their fullest extent. It’s the image of a train running through a pyramid stretched to its fullest extent. The time cops too, patrol officers summarily killing interlopers from other universes is also an untapped seam.
A passage in which Anji notices reality shifting around her as she attends a meeting is also extremely impressive, with board members snapping in and out of existence entirely unaware of it themselves and the skyline of the city outside shift and changing like a giant architectural block puzzle. It’s an occasion when a scene which could not be easily created for television, at least on a television budget and with short a tiny shooting schedule is described lucidly without resorting to the dense surrealist language which can often infect this series.
That’s also true of the climactic scenes when thousands and millions of TARDIS, all with Doctors, Fitz and Anjis begin appearing in one place for various reasons ala the final moments of the Parallels episode of Star Trek The Next Generation. Again, I wish there was more room to investigate the ideas, there’s certainly enough for another novel, especially with it’s The Girl Who Waited questions of sacrifice and whether it's ok for just a select few, some unique examples to survive, thrown together from different versions of the TARDIS from different timelines.
The hitch is, with so many versions of the different characters throughout the book, and without a single viewpoint character, it’s nearly impossible to work out who we’re supposed to sympathise with, whose story it’s supposed to be. As Battleship Potemkin demonstrates, situational drama with multiple protagonists is fine, but when we’re already familiar with those protagonists but we’re not sure if the versions we’re with are the same as the ones we’ve been following. Unlike The Girl Who Waited, they’re identical.
On screen, visual clues would provide some clear delineation between the Anjis and Fitzs but on paper it’s all very confusing and perhaps it’s supposed to be, but Leonard seems to forget that as Steven Johnson explains in Everything Bad Is Good For You, even the most complex television needs some informational "flashing arrows" to keep its audience orientated. Now that I think about, perhaps Leonard does mean for us to follow a single Anji and a single Fitz, but we’re disorientated because the author shifts to other versions rather a lot.
So in the end, as with the rest of this alternative universe arc, I probably endured it more than enjoyed it and as with the rest of this alternative universe arc the best moments are when Trix wanders in (because it has to be Trix), is entirely charming to whoever she’s bumped into and the novel feels like it’s being written by someone else, arguably a more superior writer (Is that possible? Did Justin Richards add these passage afterwards? Or rewrite just as a story editor might on television?). I also love the moment at the end when it’s hinted the Doctor knows all about her presence.
I’ve a little bit to wait, just a couple of days, before I can read the next book, Timeless, and I do want to read what happens next. In the real world, these books had entered by-monthly publishing ironically just as the new television series was announced and I am aware that some of the past Doctor novels which filled in the gaps are connected to the EDAs. I’d thought about reading the relevant ones, but decided to leave them for a different project and another time. I’ve only nine EDAs left and I want to get them read before Christmas …