Books Lovefilm care packages sit unwatched (Carlos the Jackal and A Prophet) as the momentum creeps up on me to finish reading these novels sooner rather than later. After I’ve finished speaking to you about Trevor Baxendale’s The Deadstone Memorial, I’ll be straight into the next, penultimate novel, plans to take the process slowly at this late stage entirely out of the window. There’s a momentum in the books too. Despite my reservations about The Sleep of Reason, after the misfiring alt.universe arc there’s a new excitement to the range and a real sense that this stand alone approach could and should have been initiated sooner and a real shame that there’s a full stop coming in just a couple more words.
Except as is also has also been the case in previous books, if I’d read this before 2005, I’d be seeing it echo right into both of the eras of successive producers, as the Doctor and his friends investigate the psychological torture of a small child by an alien force turning Fear Her and Night Terrors into part of an emerging sub-genre of story. Back in 2004, however, Baxendale has movies in mind, the golden glow of a street lamp illuminating the silhouette of the Doctor, Gladstone bag in hand as he visits an already introduced suburban one parent family, Hazel, a desperate mother whose son Cal is experiencing horrific nightmare for which medical Doctors can find no cures and are simply treating with antibiotics.
As this Doctor does domestic and ingratiates himself on the family, cooking meals and offering kind words to everyone, Hazel notices in a Mark Kermode pleasing moment that it’s like living in a cross between The Exorcist and Mary Poppins and as the investigation continues they realise that is all has something to do with the mysterious Deadstone Memorial in the woods and local Scooby Doo refugee Old Man Crawley, the apparently ex-grave digger with an angry dog and the kind of creepy demeanour which children love hanging around with. As with both of the later nuWho adventures, it’s up to the TARDIS team to convince a petrified mother that they’re there to help, before it’s too late, before the darkness engulfs them all.
Which should indicate that this is as creepy as Baxendale’s previous novel Eater of Wasps, but whereas that traded in body horror, this is much more psychological, drawing in fantastical images of nature on the move, of the earth itself as a force for evil. Throughout the author takes the reader into those places, like the basement of a sinister house, which we might look at from the outside imaging our worse fears, and describing them with horrid reality. Standard horror fiction tactics perhaps but as in his previous novel, Baxendale has the ability to give just enough information to creep us out without going overboard, desensitising the reader. There are thing to make you go “ugh” in here.
But unlike some of these authors, Baxendale never lets that detract from the momentum of his storytelling which for all its domestic setting belts along. For a change, there’s bags of dialogue, whole scenes full of people having conversations, a conscious effort on the authors part, perhaps, to offer something akin to what a novelisation of a television story about the Eighth Doctor might look like. It’s an approach which has generally been considered unpopular in these Eighth Doctor novels which have largely been about huge internal moments of soul searching at the expense of actual incident or presenting sci-fi adventure on an epic scale, both of which have their place, but there’s something to be said for this traditionalism.
As in the Target days, there’s a sense of the secondary characters being opened out in subtle ways, especially Hazel, whose given a lovely section about trying to keep her principles amongst her colleagues at the supermarket in which she works. Both of her kids are prodigiously shaded too, especially her daughter Jade who initially seems like a stereotypical brat but is clearly very fond of her brother. When the kid’s school teacher is captured, he has a bit a of self realisation that because it’s the weekend “he won’t be missed”. He’s an ambiguous figure but my heart broke (perhaps because I see a little bit of myself in that sentiment but we’ll move on).
All in all, Baxendale shows that it’s possible to have a fast paced narrative and character insight. That’s also true of the regulars, as for the first time in ages we witness having philosophical discussions about their place on the TARDIS and the implications of that, the bromance between the Doctor and Fitz coming close to Sherlock and John levels of mutual respect (the Time Lord has some especially Cumberatchian moments here especially on the TARDIS as he signals his boredom without an obvious case to solve). Fitz can’t really see a time now when he wouldn’t be travelling with the Doctor which is a sure sign that he won't be travelling with the Doctor for very much longer.
To an extent, Trix is pushed to the edges. After her experiences in Halflife, her one distinctive character trait, her disguises, have disappeared. There are a couple of curiosities. She spends most of the novel referring to herself with the surname Macalister, the Doctor uses it too and during a phone call apparently to a hospital asking after her mum, even though until now she’s used the Adams referencing MacMillan. Also, I’d thought Trix’s original home was one of the alt.universes, but that phone call suggests she’s in her own time and universe. Even having done a huge web search, I can’t work out if I’ve missed something or if this is all new information. Any ideas?
Meanwhile the Doctor’s acting more like himself than he has in recent novels, the tiggerish version from earlier in the series full of jokes and hijinks and stupid, grand, selfless gestures. But there’s still the hint of darkness there as he’s harangued by a spectre of an old friend in the TARDIS and what must be the Ninth incarnation nagging him to get going (although in my version of the canon he’ll have to wait for all the comics and audios before he’s close to being ready) (a conversation for another time). But this very much the mad man in a box interpretation of the character reading copies of the 50s edition of Eagle comic and teaching small children not to be afraid of the monsters.
In his Doctor Who Magazine review, Matt Michael calls this “punchy, pleasing meat and potatoes Doctor Who” and as I think we established last time, for all the excitement of experimentation that’s probably the version of the franchise I find most engaging, though as the Moffat era demonstrates its entirely possible to do both at the same time if you’re careful. The contemporary reviews were mixed, and like me it seems to be that if you held The Sleep of Reason in high regard, this suffered in comparison and vice-versa. Which is fine. Who is a broad church and it’d be strange if we liked everything (cf, the really positive letter about The Sensorites in the party newsletter the other month) (bless).
The extraneous activities in the novels have also been foreshadowing their demise coincidentally and otherwise. In The Sleep of Reason, Martin Day offers thanks to a who’s who of nuWho, including Paul Cornell, Russell T Davies, Steven Moffat and Helen Raynor and here Baxendale charmingly notes that his “children may be the only 8- and 5-year-olds in their school who can identify a Dalek, let alone a Cyberman or a Zygon or even the various Doctors.” He continues: “Hopefully, that will soon change … 2005 is nearly here.” Oh yes it will change and how (as The Sensorites comment proves). It’s also a shame it would see the demise of a book line which had kept the flame lit in the meantime. Two to go.