Dominion.

Books I’m really beginning to sprint through the novels. The reality is I’ve been on this endeavour for nearly two years already and having shelled out for the set I don’t feel like I can actually read anything else before I’ve worked my way through them. I am sort of reading them so you don’t have to, which makes them all seem like utter dreck when they’re really not. Only rarely are they less than readable and lately, with a few -- obvious -- exceptions the quality bar has been raised. The series became a bit rudderless after the Lost-Sam arc but there a definite atmosphere of driving towards something, an underlying plot arc whose purpose isn’t entirely clear yet.

This continuity drive is no more obvious than at the opening of Dominion which to my amazement occurs mere minutes after Revolution Man, the argument between Sam and Fitz still festering, the chess game still in the middle of play and even more surprisingly the deplorable events at the end of that novel are not ignored. As the adventure proceeds, the Doctor is generally fairly impotent as the cover blurb notes ‘doubting his own powers and making crucial errors of judgment’ -- people are killed, plans go array and the poor time lord is stuck in the middle often without a clue. His assumption is that it’s because the Tardis has shut down to regenerate after a disaster (which I’ll come to) although it’s just possible that it’s more than that -- that there’s something else afoot stopping the Doctor from acting like his good self. We’ll see and I hope so since the shadow that the end of Revolution Man casts is rather large.

Under the verdant green cover of the book, Nick Walters’s imaginative story is another mish-mash of filmic and literary styles which in the end is far more engrossing than I had any right to expect. It’s split into three sections. The first, ‘Loss‘, plays like an Ingmar Bergman film invaded by an episode of Primeval as a tourist Kerstin (ahem) Bergman and farmer Bjorn (ahem) Andreesson (surely played by a young Bibi Andersson and a young Max Von Sydow) are menaced by giant alien creatures in a Swedish forrest at the close of the last century. Meanwhile on the Tardis, Sam is dragged into a vortex to who knows where and the ship goes to pot on landing, the Doctor and Fitz inevitably get mixed up with the local police, pass themselves off as UNIT operatives (again) and set about helping them with their enquiries surrounding missing people.

The second section, ’Hope’ is perhaps the more surprising in hindsight as it deals with an organisation, C19, which is essentially Torchwood under a different name, developing alien technology apparently to further mankind but always with the potential that it could become a weapon. At the centre of their work is Nagle, a figure whose only an ex-Eastenders cast member away from being Yvonne Hartman. Which is as nothing when it becomes obvious that the thing she’s been working on is an inter-dimensional portal which is threatening to suck everything on the earth into it. Again, meanwhile, Sam is revealed obviously to be alive and swimming through the Dominion which has all of the qualities of being a giant lava lamp that’s been left in a garage since the sixties and been infect by the local insect life. ‘Destiny’ is obviously about how all of this resolves itself. Oh and a regional UNIT unit are in there too making life difficult for everyone.

First time Eighth Doctor novelist Walters, who I really wanted to succeed after reading the acknowledgments page in which he thanks everyone including his Mum and Dad and comes across as someone who’s genuinely honoured to be writing for the series, has knocked out a respectable piece of work that’s exciting and surprising in equal measure. This has a lot to do with how he very carefully modulates the story; all that essentially happens to the Doctor and Fitz is that they land the Tardis, hook up with the police, visit a farmhouse, are captured and spend the rest of the novel in the secret base, give or take a trip to and in the Tardis. Sam finds herself in the Dominion in explores there for a couple of hundred pages. Mostly this leads to endless scenes of people just sitting around having a chat but for some reason it’s never less than compelling and is a welcome diversion from some of the books that seem desperate to be epic and expansive just because they can.

Which is odd considering that the Dominion is essentially Vortis with better xeno-biological tooling and more imaginative backdrops and everything else is a fairly traditional UNIT story with extra cosmology. The action sequences aren’t even that imaginative and there’s some of the random approach to loyalty that’s punctuated an average episode of Torchwood. His writing style certainly helps, conjuring some really imaginative images, such as the sky/sea within the Dominion which only a bit of each and Kerstin being led into a broken console room by a stream of the Doctor’s local butterflies, a concept which you suspect could only work within the pages of these novels and is all the better for it. But Sweden itself is very well imagined too and certainly makes a change from the usual spots for these invasions (a point the book itself makes somewhere).

Perhaps its also because as with the best of these novels Walters takes time to build up a small cast of characters applying shades of grey even to the apparent villians. Compare the two dimensional Ed from the previous novel to UNIT man Wolstencroft, still holding a grudge against the time lord for all the men he lost during the seventies (another indication that these Eighth Doctor novels consider the UNIT stories to have happened in step with transmission) essentially doing what he feels is right. Kerstin is the most sympathetic though, another woman falling into Fitz’s arms after the loss of a boyfriend but the resolution shows that not everyone is supposed to travel in the Tardis. But his version of the Doctor is also an achievement, so like the man we know but also lost, without the spark that usually drags him through anything until the closing moments -- but note that Walters’ writing is so good that we can tell this is a deliberate choice in relation to the characterisation rather than just simply misunderstanding what he’s about.

With the Doctor’s charisma out of action is largely up to Fitz to sort things out putting him front and centre again. I like Fitz. As predicted he’s transplanting his sixties sensibilities into the future but recent experiences have taught him when to hold back on some of his tendencies. In some ways he is the time travelling Han Solo that SFX magazine are looking for in their letter column this month -- roguish but with a heart of gold. Some of his ideas made me laugh out loud, such as when faced with the passivity of giant insect copulation in a confined space they’re all occupying together, he almost asks the Queen bug ‘for six bob to get lost for the evening’ or when an image of the beautiful Kersten pops into his mind at an inopportune moment. He’s just so wonderfully human, and a real antidote to Sam who is still compelling but to an extent has fallen to the fate that Jackie warned Rose against in The Parting of the Ways of becoming so accustomed to space travel that she’s stopped being herself.

And at the end of this all, a cliffhanger with just enough mystery to actually make me want to read the next novel straight away -- and it’s another book from Jon Bloom and Kate Orman who so far haven’t put a foot wrong. I can’t wait to see what the Unnatural History is. In his acknowledgements, Nick Walters thanks them too and provides a one word review for this next book -- Wow!

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