Books BBC Books have been pretty quick off the shelf with these three, published just a couple of weeks into the new series, well before views had become comfortable with the new Doctor, Peter Capaldi and written well in advance of much of the season having been written. Given just how different this Time Lord is to his predecessor, this must have been something of a challenge for the chosen authors akin to when Christopher Eccleston was in charge. As then, the publisher hasn’t taken the easiest approach of matching him with some familiar antagonists and so as I read through these in the past three weeks I was very keen to see how they coped and how accurately they managed to portray a character still in his screen infancy.
Mike Tucker’s approach in The Crawling Terror is to go full on rural with the Doctor and Clara pitching up at a village in Wiltshire that’s being menaced by science in the form of giant insects apparently being generated by the strange industrial plant on the outskirts. There are stone circles too, which may have something to do with it. Oh and there’s a full on military presence already investigating though not UNIT because the Brigadier’s in Geneva or the modern equivalent. With references to a “growning wheezing sound” and attempts to find a modern alternative to teeth and curls in the descriptions, Tucker has in mind to offer a loving homage to the TARGET novelisations. If only the format allowed for illustrations.
In this he largely succeeds. All of the ancient UNIT family have analogues, especially Colonel Dickinson who has all the hallmarks of having been written in because Nicholas Courtney’s agent couldn’t make the deal in time. There are moments when the Doctor and these military men are fighting against giant mosquitoes in which you can almost feel Malcolm Hulke taking the opportunity to fill in the CSO gaps, oh so obvious on screen. There’s even a put-upon mad scientist shackled to some disembodied voice sapping his will, the voice behind the face both which provide something the Doctor hasn’t had on screen for some time, a proper nemesis he can say nasty things to.
There are a couple of tonal issues. Throughout Tucker’s pop culture references are well above the proper target audience of the book (even though obviously there’s a chance that target audience has naughtily watched some of that stuff anything). The treatment of Clara is also potentially a bit too trad. She’s largely in character but isn’t a particularly strong part of the story, largely existing to have exposition shouted at her before being put in peril, which seems at odds with how she’s being portrayed on screen where she’s almost the brains of the operation. It’s one of the risks of these early releases, it’s impossible for the author to quite know what’s going to happen in the television series because as I said earlier, they’ve had to finish before broadcast.
In Silhouette, Justin Richards similarly decides to put this new Doctor in a familiar setting, taking leaf from Moffat’s datacore and returning Twelfth and Clara to the Victorian setting and the Paternoster Gang, investigating curious deaths, a carnival and a mysterious anachronistic power source. As anyone who’s familiar with Richards’s Devil in the Smoke Kindle short will know, as well as revelling in the atmosphere of the period, his characterisation of the gang is fabulously accurate and he takes particularly pleasure giving Strax plenty of stratagems involving multiply-consonanted weaponry (which Dan Starkey will take great pleasure rolling his tongue over if he’s given the opportunity to read an audio version).
If Tucker deliberately evokes the Pertwee era, Richards gives off an Eighth Doctor vibe, particularly the novels in the late era when he’d somewhat come to terms with his amnesia but still had the knotty problem of an arch enemy. Through a camera obscura, the novel’s villain Orestes Milton’s plan could just as easily be transposed and carried out for different motives by Sabbath, with the work of his various charges carried out by Trix early in narrative arc. There’s also a prop reference which made me cheer. All of which makes me the more desperate for BBC Books to go back to that era somehow and bring us yet more stories of the McGann model.
As well as the regulars Clara’s especially well characterised too and she’s still an active participant despite the much larger cast of characters. There is one moment which doesn’t quite seem like something Jenna Coleman could comfortably reproduce but other than that her passage through the story doesn’t seem like it could easily be filled by another companion. The carnival’s a bit of a cliché but that looks to be a deliberate choice due to the low pagination of these young adult novels which in attempting to evoke a television story always tend to use a certain amount of shorthand in their world building. If anything some of those old Eighth Doctor novels became too baggy for the opposite reason with their tiny text.
James Goss does his first person narrative thing. James Goss is one of my favourite writers precisely because I can’t remember an occasion when he’s just written something with a straight third person narrative. He’s always aware of the medium within which he's writing. The Blood Cell is the journal of a prison governor in the style of the tired 70s sitcom administrator whose had the misfortune of being landed with the Doctor as an inmate. Having been stuck with the usual routines for years, protocols from on high, here’s this tall stranger and his big-eyed shorter friend to entirely ignore them in a fight to convince him that something has gone terribly wrong in the prison and he really needs to start paying attention.
Prison drama is one of the more oddball of spin-off genres, extrapolating the Doctor’s usual classic episode or so in a cell into full blown narratives, from The Monster Inside to The Infinite Quest to Interference not to mention a few audios with the Doctor’s captivity the ultimate sanction for a person who usually has his freedom in all of time and space. Now we have another reinvention with Goss pressing many of the usual genre tropes about prisoners escaping and causing general mayhem into service on a story which is really all about the enlightenment of a single individual, the narrator and the very person who in these kinds of stories is never enlightened with the Doctor showing every sign of wanting to be there.
As Goss himself said in the previews to the novel in Doctor Who Magazine, if his Twelfth doesn’t sound quiet right he has the narrator’s memory as an excuse. While its true that just now and then he offers a few instances of a Tennant-like "Brilliant", what we have here is Capaldi’s bruiser, the odd inconsistencies an obvious result of the governor’s oscillating trust. When he and Clara speak it’s almost like reading script pages, the infamous café scene from Deep Breath an obvious template. Most of the other characters are just the sort of figures you’d find in prison films, and like Richards’s carnival members, that’s a deliberate choice due to the shorter pagination of these young adult novels.
How well do these authors portray the new Doctor and what clues it might give us for how he’ll appear on screen going forward? Goss also says in the preview for these novels that “there’s definitely a moment early on in Episode 2 that made me go, ‘Oh, well, that’s different’”. Tough he doesn’t elucidate on what that is, my guess is when they’re in the Dalek’s stomach and cruelly suggests the other soldiers might want to say a few words over the remains of the colleague they’re currently standing in. It’s dark stuff in which the Doctor’s alieness comes to the fore looking at the bigger picture of everyone’s safety rather than individual feelings. They’re almost the reverse of Pertwee’s moments of charm when his gruff arrogance melts.
Well, in The Crawling Terror, there is a scene in which the Doctor could intervene but for various reasons doesn’t in which we get the feeling that The Waters of Mars or similar situations wouldn’t have been quite as much of a moral dilemma (are the consequences of his previous incarnation’s actions the reason he has that face?). The Twelfth Doctor of Silhouette is a rather more benign presence, generally just a bit rude and grumpy. He’s also pretty amiable in The Blood Cell, until the business of things because apparent and there’s a moment when he screams at Clara as a representative of humanity and its failings which is pretty full on. The Doctor will be your very best friend until you cross him, or someone from your species does.
In all three cases there’s rarely a feeling that we’re hearing some generic Doctor of the kind Russell T Davies cautioned against when receiving the scripts for his first year and which turned up early on in the Eighth Doctor novels. The dialogue would seem to fit Capaldi and it’s difficult to imagine Tennant or Smith doing much of it, almost as though this incarnation has taken to heart the Hurt Doctor’s protestations. As I say, if anything he’s closer to the classic incarnations, notably Tom, which as we know shouldn’t be too much of a surprise since that’s who the initial television writers were told to work with initially. But as we’re seeing on screen the Twelfth Doctor is developing into a very distinctive new incarnation and that’s reflected in these books.
All three are out now from BBC Books, priced £6.99 each. Review copies supplied.