Books Back in the day, all of 2003, BBC Books’s Doctor Who novels switched to a bimonthly schedule, an Eighth Doctor Adventure one month, the Past Doctors the next and ironically at around the time the new series had been commissioned and there could be a resurgence in interest and an uptick in sales. Not reading either at the time, I didn’t have much of an sense of what that meant as a consumer. Now having had to wait a couple of months for Mark Michalowski’s Halflife to be delivered through inter-library loan, I can entirely appreciate the frustration. How could you stand it? I could have bought it I expect, but with funds limited and second hand copies costing over a tenner and knowing I’d probably only ever read this once, I decided to wait.
Luckily, Halflife’s the first step in a new editorial policy of shifting towards a more stand alone format, only glancing towards extra-curricular mythology and finishing up a couple of niggling story elements from novels previous. Which isn’t to say it ever really feels like a stand alone novel, not in the same way as a PDA, but by the close there’s a renewed sense of the Doctor and his pals having all of time and space in front of them rather than whatever bit of plot they’ve decided to investigate because Sabbath told them to and it is just one universe rather than several dozen or an infinite number depending upon how the author’s even interpreting the story arch. Sorry, bear with me. I’m a bit rusty.
As is the Doctor because as the novel opens he has amnesia. Again. Or rather he has more amnesia on top of the amnesia he already has. Which is unfortunate. He’s also not him really feeling himself, lost on the streets of the Terran colony world of Espero, smoking, drinking and swearing up the place, like, well, like Fitz. Fitz meanwhile also has extra amnesia and finds himself wanting to get into the thick of oncoming mysteries and adventures, of night beasts roaming the colony, of a royal family with a touch of the Shakespeares (an aging ruler is being plotted against by his young wife and her son) and of apocalyptic disasters from all side. Meanwhile Trix is stuck in the middle of it all enduring her own identity crisis not in control of all her faculties.
Halflife is Mark Michalowski’s only Eighth Doctor novel though his grasp on the mythology is exemplary and once again we marvel at how some authors are capable of treating characters and a storyline that exists only in prose on a page with the same order of research and observation as tie-in novels based the television version of the show. If nothing else, Michalowski’s characterisation is right on the money in a way that some writers who produced several of these things never did quite manage and with the extra challenge of projecting, thanks to some in-story accidental genetics, elements of the Doctor’s personality and memories onto Fitz and vice-versa and still keep the integrity of both.
They’re certainly the strongest element of the novel. Finally we’re talking about their memories in ways which should have been addressed trees worth of pages ago. What can the Doctor remember? What can Fitz? Do they want to? Thanks to an expert in memories (who the internet says may be his previous walking TARDIS companion Compassion though I didn’t get that at) and an organic ship from elsewhere, they’re forced to deal with their past. The Doctor, it seems is happy not remember anything before he woke up on the train just prior to The Burning. Fitz now remembers everything including that he’s a facsimile created by the Doctor about whom he now knows more than friend and is happy about that too because the shoe's on the other foot.
On the one hand this makes Fitz relevant again as something more than a companion. For once they may be in a situation and it’ll be Fitz who’s allowed a modicum of exposition room rather than the Doctor simply pulling it from his memory and explaining it instead. In narrative terms that should provide some interest for the final five. You could argue that Fitz was a companion for far longer than he really should have been, but he’s been kept somewhat fresh through these subtle reimaginings, from real Fitz to Kode to faux Fitz to faux Fitz with a memory of some or all of his previous incarnations. I notice as I’m writing about these books again I’m mucking up my tenses again too. They were published in the past but they’re very present because I’m only reading them now. It’s a brain jangler.
The Doctor’s choice is even more complex and I don’t know if it feels quite right. He might be happy with who he is now, but given the choice to have his memories of everything else back, shouldn’t he take it? Wouldn’t any of his other incarnations if it meant he could achieve his goals better? It’s about the only element of the novel which feels like a story element being put to one side for later, or something which is being forced in to give this version of the Eighth Doctor a character trait lacking in his other incarnations as though a version with all of his pre-The Ancestor Cell memories wouldn’t be distinctive enough. It doesn’t matter that much at this point – he’ll presumably get them all back in five novels, but it’s still a bit odd.
That said, it does allow Michalowski to put the audience in the same position as the Doctor in regards to one of the antagonists. Throughout the Doctor keeps chiding himself for not being able to remember the Makers, the aliens who take control of Trix threatening to delete her personality and take control of her body, and throughout we’ve a nagging feeling that we should know who they are too as though they’re some returning presence from a previous novel or corner of the franchise. They’re not, as the newly renamed TARDIS Datacore confirms, a website which exists because despite being fans not all of us can remember everything which happened in every story that we’ve read about the Doctor, just as he can’t remember every adventure he’s had.
The other strong element of the novel is the world, for once an entirely non-Caucasian mass of humanity through which our entirely Caucasion crew wander, another element of the shoe being on the other foot. But for the most part there’s little Orientalism, they just happen to originally have travelled from the African subcontinent, the story isn’t about that, in a way that sci-fi and drama in general often has issues with (and yes, I mean you Star Trek The Next Generation’s Code of Honor). The geography of the colony itself is pretty standard stuff, but in a way that’s also innovative; there’s a tendency in these novels to over develop the locale so that it becomes entirely unrealistic. Sometimes space can be just as unremarkable as back down here on Earth with a few extra fantasy trappings.
If the EDAs had gone on a bit longer, perhaps Mark Michalowski would have become one of its strongest proponents and certainly the contemporary reviews I’ve seen are (were?) (damn) impressed with his writing if not necessarily some of the plot points. With just five books to go, the series seems to be heading off with refreshed sense of purpose and of fun adventures ahead. But on the Acknowledgements page Mark offers what I think is the first in print acknowledgement of the reason the series would be curtailed. “And to Russell T Davies", he says, "for being lovely and for giving us all hope again.” It’s just a pity that for fans of the Eighth Doctor novels that hope would have a slightly darker hue. Five to go.