Everything about this novel just works, even the synopsis: “With Fitz gone to his certain death and Anji back at work in the City, the Doctor is once more alone. But he has a lot to keep him occupied.” Wait, what? Did I miss a few? Luckily I tend to read these things without looking at the back first, so there wasn’t a pointless glance at the TARDIS Index File to make sure, but isn’t that enticing? Even the cover’s fun, with an ice-TARDIS shivering in a cavern, the designers Black Sheep’s style having developed far since some of the earlier dodgy examples (Longest Day).
All of this actually happens at the top of the novel as recent events take their toll and Fitz decides he needs to adventure alone for a while, on an exhibition into Siberia with George Williamson whom they met in Camera Obscura and Anji finally being dropped home, the Doctor having gotten the hang of flying the TARDIS properly (his accuracy becoming pretty important as this story progresses). But as the synopsis indicates they’re all still inextricably drawn to Siberia chasing aspects of the same problem, another time machine with the capacity to destroy the universe.
Which should sound derivative, but as is always the case in Doctor Who, it’s all a matter of approach. The authors utilises some slightly tricksy structuring with a string of short, snappy chapters jumping backwards and forwards in time rather like the TARDIS, with plenty of incidents and motivations, including from the regulars, never quite being explained only coalescing as the novel reaches its conclusion. The opening scene, a hilarious Blue Peter pastiche during which another 70s televisual controversy occurs isn’t explained until at least two-hundred and fifty pages later.
Richards, at least initially, seems to be purposefully mashing genres together. Fitz’s portion is essentially in a classic adventure films, Scott of the Antarctic crossed with The Land That Time Forgot, good men and true battling against the elements towards some fantastical outcome. Anji’s back in a Richard Curtis film, back at work in 2001, dealing with the grief that surrounds Dave even though she’s somewhat resolved her own through travels in the TARDIS. The Doctor’s in a modern detective drama, attempting to discover what happened to Fitz without interfering with the timeline.
Meanwhile in Sibera, a 90s James Cameron film is playing out as a research team investigating black holes is invaded by mercenaries looking for the above time machine and slowly all of these other genres find themselves folded into that and everything starts to feel more and more like Doctor Who as pages go on (though Doctor Who’s big enough to contain all of those elements anyway but we’re more clearly in a base under siege scenario albeit with human aggressors and a more complex scenario to uncover than a simple alien invasion).
Just as Camera Obscura pulled in the various interests of Mark Gatiss, so Time Zero is almost a microcosm of Steven Moffat’s work on the new series, especially in the Eleventh Doctor era. There are time paradoxes, of course, but the ultimate problem leads the Doctor to expounding on elements of temporal mechanics and quantum theory, on the fundamental nature of the Whoniverse and whether it exists as a single timeline ala Lance Parkin’s AHistory or whether each of his decisions leads to a new junction and the creation of a whole new universe.
It’s worth noting that the ultimate assumption doesn’t contradict the new series. He’s decided that there’s a single “master” universe, the Parkin version, but that the web of time does indeed produce offshoots when it can’t resolve changes in the timeline wrought by time travellers like him, in other words, the one with the airships or the one with the eyepatches. That’s a tangent, but the point is that this is a return to the kind of complex storytelling which made up the earlier arcs in the EDAs and now finds itself plastered across Saturday night tv.
But the ultimate aim of the antagonist is to bond all of these realities, though he believes them to be infinite, into a single timeline with the potential side effect that all that ever was and ever could be happen simultaneously ala The Wedding of River Song. As I’ve said before although these aren’t new ideas in science fiction terms, it’s impossible not imagine Moffat having read these novels himself and stored these ideas away in his RAM-like brain and that he’s now feeding off them. At this point, River Song is essentially Iris Wildthyme fused with Bernice Summerfield.
There are also character, story and structural elements that feel familiar. When Moffat’s first episode of Sherlock went out, I joked on here about how great it was to finally have the Eighth Doctor on television little realising how much of his portion of Time Zero contains scenes that are just like that series, especially a particularly clever moment when the Doctor bluffs his way into a crime scene. Perhaps what we’re seeing is Richards’s own interest in Arthur Conan Doyle but there’s clearly a some genetic interconnections between the two franchises.
PROPER SPOILERS BEGIN HERE. Plus there’s the subtle introduction of a companion before her time. Rather like the pre-awareness of Jenna Louise-Colman’s casting before Asylum of the Daleks, I’m not so unaware of the basic shape of these novels that I don’t know that there is a companion called Trix and she’ll be along soon. But I didn’t know she’d be appearing in Time Zero and that she’d be revealed to have been in half of the story before that revelation, and that the Doctor would apparently know who she is.
How did this work during publication, I wonder? Did readers then know that a new companion would soon be introduced and was this a bit of a surprise teaser ala Oswin? She’s very much at the back of things, but personality wise, she’s not that far away from the Moffat style sparky female which some critics have suggested Oswin is also an iteration. But she clearly has a something about her, bit of the Lady Christina de Souza, I expect. Mysterious, perplexing and with the potential for a love hate relationship with the Doctor. Would anyone like to make a guess on casting? Winslet? Paltrow?
The connecting tissues between the, I nearly wrote episodes, novels is knitting closer together too, with Sabbath’s motivation for seeking the time machine in the last novel finally being revealed here. As ever, thanks to the text format, I didn’t guess who he was masquerading as this time. Unlike the Master in a dozen stories, I’m not sure that we’re supposed to and unlike the Master in a dozen stories, it’s not a trick which should be played too often otherwise we’re likely to assume that any of the characters are him in disguise which has the potential to undermine our sympathies.
There are other oddities. It’s revealed here that the note the Doctor carried about in the Earth arc wasn’t written by Fitz, something the Time Lord realised only recently. Since it’s the author who initiated that idea writing, it isn’t necessarily a retcon, but it does slightly undermine one of the more poignant elements of that series of stories, the moments when the amnesiac Eighth took out the little slip of paper which provided him some comfort that his questions would be answered. I hope that wasn’t Sabbath too.
We're also finally given an explanation for the flame elemental from way back in The Burning. Unlike television, the novels due to their sheer volume won't necessarily have born repeat experience. I wonder how many readers would have cottoned on to that element of the story; perhaps a proportion of their small audience will have discussed such elements online and that might have fixed such things in their mind, but read that novel back in 2008 (admittedly longer than during publication) and had entirely forgotten about that aspect of it.
What makes the climax so special is that it’s so unexpected. The coda looks like its going to be some fun about the Doctor selling Fitz’s journal to the bookshop so that his younger self can pick it up (shenanigans ala The Big Bang) but it’s the Doctor’s detective work and which slowly reveals that nothing is as it seems and I’d expect most readers are in Anji’s position of having a slightly shaky history but Fitz, being closer in time and the Doctor who practically lived through it who’re able to fill in the blanks.
But more than that, rather than simply the TARDIS landing in the wrong time and have them discover it there, we have a conversation in which the three of them actively know what they’re up against, what needs to be done and choose the adventure, almost licking their lips with anticipation at what’s to come. Even Anji, who like Tegan way back when has been moaning about the Doctor’s inability to get back to her own time has decided the TARDIS is her home. Antagonistic companions are never as much fun as those who choose to follow the Doctor’s mission.
It's also a big huge cosmic problem and these novels have always seemed to be at their best when there's a big huge cosmic problem to solve. The multiverse is collapsing, and its up to the Doctor to save it by simply being in the right universe and selling a book to the right shop at the right time. How very Doctor Who. Some of the contemporary reviews suggested this was the work of someone who was essentially doing everything that should be in a Who novel rather than producing something inspirational. That's unfair. From here, Time Zero looks to be one of the best of the series. Just thirteen left now. That's a television season...