Books In the last couple of days, I’ve been reading through the various review of this Eighth Doctor series published in Doctor Who Magazine. Vanessa Bishop covered them for years when she was the sole writer on Shelf Life, then Matthew (Matt) Michael took over when labour on the section was diversified starting with Lance Parkin’s Father Time. As is often the case with distance from publication, the reviews say more about their authors than the books themselves, with Bishop ranking as something of a fan and Michael, not so much. While hers are generally positive, his are generally negative. But in any case it was useful to see how often my own opinion dovetailed and divided with there’s which is roughly with equal measure.
One of the results is I’ve also been able to see the covers for the first time in ages and see the moment when the new series was announced and how that correlates with the publishing of these novels. The reviews for The Last Resort and Timeless went out in the October 2003 issue which would have been published in September I suppose. By January 2004 with its horrendous picture of Colin, there’s a stop press circle on the cover indicating that a new series is in the offering. The reason this is interesting is we, meaning me, or I, can now look out for the moment when it became apparent that the EDAs would soon be finishing and it’s clear the editors and writers are working towards a conclusion.
There’s no evidence of it in Stephen Cole’s book which seems mainly to exist to clarify and provide some kind of climax to the mess that has been the alternative universe story arc and offer some form of forward direction towards the overall narrative which began with The Adventuress of Henrietta Street. The result is pretty brilliant, a definite return to form for a series which tends to be pretty directionless at the best of times even if in jettisoning the alt.universe thing, it literally jettisons it, offering a resolution within a couple of chapters of the start of the novel in a way which makes, with the exception perhaps of the boat explanation, the last three books feel entirely superfluous.
The book opens with a “previously on…” section in which Fitz, Anji and Trix are making a documentary (yes, really) about their exploits in these alternative universes. Having entirely regained their sense of character, they’re also spectacularly jaded and there’s a general feeling of there having been at least six more novels that have been missed out one of which would presumably have included a moment when the Doctor and everyone found Trix in the TARDIS. There have been few subtler companion introductions. She’s just sort of already in the group and it’s almost like Season 20 opening with Turlough already on board. The Doctor turning up on her shoulder in The Last Resort is apparently as close as we’ll be coming.
After that, there’s a Fanthorpian moment when the Doctor realises how he can resolve everything and with the help of a mysterious child he does. It’s actually pretty staggering and a less avid reader might be disgruntled but somehow Cole makes it work because actually, in the end, we're just happy that it’s over even if its conclusion is purposefully anticlimactic and as a slightly sticky flashback structure works itself through we’re back in Anji’s time, 2003 conveniently thanks to the year or so added on in Time Zero, and mysteriously on the tail of a serial killer whose work doesn’t just seem as “simple” as a killing spree, that there are intergalactic implications.
The rest of Timeless has what is often described in film as an “elevator” story, in which the goal of the protagonist shifts as the stakes are raised or/and the antagonist changes. There’s always a bigger fish. As the story works itself out, we’re able to appreciate Cole’s brilliance in presenting quite complex science fiction ideas in an accessible manner featuring realistic human beings in way this series hasn’t always been able to accomplish. We’re quickly on notice that the serial killer is a means to an end and there are enemies with much greater plans and that those plans have cosmic significance. Their ultimate prize is nifty and sets up everything which will presumably occur in upcoming novels.
It’s just the sort of thing the Eighth Doctor novels have been good at. Sending a human back in time so that his DNA becomes part of the make-up of the universe destroying diversity and making it so that every species which develops is human is mind boggling. It’s somewhat a precursor to the Immortality Gate from The End of Time, but in the Star Trek The Next Generation episode The Chase, it’s almost a rationalisation for why the aliens in that universe are mainly humanoid; they all share a common ancestor which sent its genetic make-up across the stars (an metaphorical retelling of our own evolution, nomadically spreading out as we have from somewhere in Iraq) (thanks Michael Wood).
But also like nuWho, it’s real human beings caught up in it. There’s Guy Adams, apparently the most important man on Earth, but whose own relatives want to kill. The scenes when his boss, girlfriend and even his own mother turn on him with various ad-hoc weapons are generally played for laughs but they seek to round out his character in a way which is rare for these books. There’s also Stacy Philips, the forthright American chasing the serial killer whose been keeping her updates on his actions. She’s introduced to the story by the Doctor and the sexual tension in their scenes echo those with Grace in the TV movie during sections in which, if we didn’t know better, it’s as though she’s being set up as a new companion.
Which is probably why I've taken to her at such an early stage. Matt Michael suggests she’s a concept companion in the style of Leela, and while that might be true, she’s a good contrast to Anji whose resolutely been written as realistically as possible no matter which alien world she’s found herself on. It’ll be good to have a companion whose basis is resolutely fantastical again ala Compassion, whose slightly skewed opinion of the universe was always entertaining. With a few exceptions we mostly see her through Fitz’s eyes and he doesn’t trust her, or rather doesn’t trust that when she’s being nice to him, it’s not simply so that she can reach some other goal.
Cole also has the job of writing out Anji and for once in this series, she doesn’t die or turned into some other thing. Rather like a companion being parked in case the actress decides to return to the series, she simply goes on with her life. What interesting of course is that she’s presumably being written out because the writers feel like they’ve done everything they can with her in contrast to the television series where often an actor decides to leave because they feel the writers have done everything they can with it, or more accurately haven’t and don’t seem to want to change.
I’ll admit to being quite emotional about her leaving. Funny. A contemporary review online has suggested she was the best companion ever and though I don’t think she was that, you can see her DNA in of nuWho’s television companions especially Amy Pond with their desperate grasping towards normality within whatever time period or dimension they find themselves even if the writers could never quite agree on her back story with her wandering ethnic origin which is expounded on at some length here (with a nice explanation). The highlights have clearly been her screwball comedy-like interactions with Fitz, with him building towards becoming respectable so as not to disappoint her.
But it’s not quite the end of the story arc. That seems to be upcoming in Sometime Never … with Emotional Chemistry in between. After that? Well, I have a vague hope that having realised the new series is coming back we’ll return to something more akin to a stand alone series with less angst for the Doctor and more of a sense of pure adventure, of the literary Eighth Doctor in slightly more traditional settings. At this point I’ve little clue what’s coming but in a way, these novels because of the rapidity with which I’m working through them feel just as present and exciting as the Moffat era which is probably fitting since for nearly a decade they were one of the official continuations.