Books In my haste to post my review last night I got the title of the book wrong with a correction offered by the author (thanks Trevor) which is a bit embarrassing. But with so few books remaining I’ve given myself a deadline of the private view at the Bluecoat as the deadline (this eight year odyssey must be over by 4 o’clock on Friday, review written and all), which is barely an excuse but it’s all fixed now. I’ve checked and double checked. Stephen Cole’s novel is called To The Slaughter. That’s To The Slaughter. Not To The Death as I originally typed, though Big Finish fans might understand why. Anyway, here we are, the penultimate novel, the first published in 2005 and the last before nuWho blazed its trail across Saturday nights.
Cole will have been aware of all that during the writing process; his author page trails his first nuWho novel The Monster Inside. What interesting is that unlike recent novels, To The Slaughter, which arguably has a very nuWho title, is steeped in nostalgia both for the show’s deep past and recent adventures. With The Gallifrey Chronicles to come with all of its promise, it’s clear Cole felt he had to pull away from providing too much closure, so this is mainly a stand alone novel that glances backward nostalgically at what’s been, though he’s careful not to go too far perhaps recognising there may be curious readers picking up the book in anticipation of the new series, wanting to see what the character’s been up to.
The set-up is pure sixties structural nostalgia. The Doctor, Fitz and Trix have been forced to land at some secret base search for mercury to repair the TARDIS’s fluid link. Before long they’ve become separated from said time machine and from each other and inadvertently stumbled into a plan to artistically remodel the solar system, parts of which they view via the inhabitants of the various space ships they’re trapped in but it soon becomes clear that this Feng Shuiing of the moons around Jupiter is cover for a much more sinister militaristic intent and insanity quite literally ensues. The stage is set for an intergalactic runaround, which leads to the reader realising the novel has a rather spoilery cover.
The novel is also that rare thing in the Eighth Doctor line, a sequel to a seventies story, or rather a line from a seventies story, when the fourth Doctor registers surprise when Commander Stevenson in Revenge of the Cybermen implies Jupiter has thirteen moons, just as a real thirteenth moon and many more besides were being discovered. In his lengthy afterword (yes, even in the penultimate book there’s a lengthy afterword!), Cole says his point in writing the novel was to explain how teeth and curls could have got such a basic piece of astronomy wrong, though to indicate how would be a bit of a spoiler too. Now I expect we’ve all become perfectly happy with such inaccuracies being explained by things just being different in the Whoniverse.
If there’s an Eighties element, it’s that, like so many stories in that period, the Doctor and his friends are essentially trying to make sense of group of infighting antagonists all in it for themselves. Scientists are commissioned by companies to create one set of stuff which is then passed off as some other stuff in order to be sold elsewhere. Work colleagues live in suspicion of one another. Everyone is morally ambiguous, even those who suggest they’re trying to protect the solar system. It’s the cast of The Caves of Androzani failing to reach an agreement with the inhabitants of Terminus, many of them as repellent as Morgus.
But these novels began publication in the 90s and Cole, who was series editor for much of that period offers some juicy references, especially to Fitz’s storyline between Interference and The Ancestor Cell, a period Kreiner now remembers clearly thanks to the events of Halflife. Some of these are pretty “hardcore” and require the reader to have a strong memory for the mythology, especially Cole’s own novels. Having been reading these for as long as most readers back then, I wonder how many of those would remember details from The Fall of Yquatine or Parallel 59. Unless they’re inveterate re-readers. Did that happen much given the rapidity of publication?
Perhaps most surprisingly are the parallels with only recent (relatively) The Tomorrow Windows. Again Fitz becomes isolated from the Doctor. Again he meets a planetary artist, or as is the case this time an interplanetary artist. Again there’s an Alien Bodies alike auction backed up on this occasion with recognisable if unnamed monster cameos (one of which was actually in Alien Bodies). Again the Doctor is forced to work against his natural principles to save the day. Again there’s a possible Douglas Adams reference as it features a genetically engineered beast that wants to be eaten so much it walks into the oven of its own accord.
All of which means I really rather enjoyed it. This is another example of meat and potatoes Doctor Who, but on a grand scale with epic intergalactic vistas, tons of action, some romance (for Fitz, obviously) and a sense of Cole simply enjoying this particular version format for one final time before, as was the case, he began having to write for a much younger audience and without directly referencing this rich tapestry (though ironically his was the one of the three novels which would include an alien race and a location that would be references in the television series itself). It must have been quite a jolt having to ignore all of this.
It’s also Cole in the position of not having to clear up the mess left by other authors in the line. Though Parallel 59 was in the middle of an arc, The Ancestor Cell was about scouring the narrative decks (and Gallifrey) ready for The Burning’s reboot, Vanishing Point was about clarifying the TARDIS team's relationships post Escape Velocity and Timeless was about making sense of the alt.universe arc. There’s none of that here. It’s all about giving the regulars a decent adventure at which he succeeds, especially Trix who is still something of a blank but allows herself to indulge in some Doctorish tendencies, including monologuing, albeit with gun in hand.
Matt Michael’s review, appearing somewhat incongruously in a DWM that’s all about the new series, takes the book to task for having a relatively flimsy storyline which I’d argue as I think you’ve gathered is one of its strengths because it gives the characters time to simply exist, but he acknowledges that its Cole indulging in his farewell. On Outpost Gallifrey (where the reviewing team had dwindled to three) it’s one sort of hit and two misses, though again their main problem, its incongruous genre mixing. “Is it a comedy, science fiction, a political thriller, a horror?” one asks even though the brilliance of Doctor Who is its ability to be all those things and often at the same time.
I don’t know what it was like for readers picking up these novels just as the new series began, though presumably it was with mixed feelings, the version of the franchise which had sustained them (apparently in dwindling numbers) during the wilderness years ending because of the return of the show to television and the apparent need by BBC Books to merchandise that instead. It must have doubly strange when Big Finish were still merrily releasing Eighth Doctor audios and with the quality of the books themselves having reached something of a renaissance, perhaps thanks to a reduced publication schedule (one every two months).
Here I am after all of that with The Gallifrey Chronicles sitting alone on the shelf, just about where it’s sat for the past eight years, when I bought it on publication knowing I’d want to read it one day and not wanting to be in the situation of it being out of print and having to pay a small fortune. Little did I know it would be back in print and available on some sort of electronic book. Nevertheless I keep hovering my hand over it like the Tenth Doctor finger flirting with River Song’s diary in Forest of the Dead. Once it’s gone, it’s gone. I can’t read it for the first time again. All this will be over. Finally. Oh sod it. One to go.