The Blue Angel.

Books  You’ve got to love Doctor Who sometimes.  Any other series would have followed the experimental Interference with a nice, light generic adventure to get things back on track.  Even Buffy The Vampire Slayer, having thrown the ambiguous, premonition strewn character study Restless in at the end of its fourth season began season five with Buffy Vs. Dracula just to remind everyone what the show was actually about.  In this version of Doctor Who, series editor Steve Cole instead called upon one of the series true auteur, Paul Magrs to co-author with the mysterious Jeremy Hoad a work that’s truly innovative and about as experimental as the series has been so far.

I always remember Doctor Who Magazine’s review of the book -- they said it was like Season Twenty-One opening with the Fifth Doctor, Tegan and Turlough enjoying breakfast in a kitchen having settled down into suburbia (and how preferable would that have been to Warrior’s of the Deep?) -- and they’re not wrong.  One part of this dreamlike tale features the like of a domesticated earth-bound Doctor, living in an old Edwardian house with Fitz and Compassion, who has a shrink who’s obviously supposed to be an allusion to Doctor number three and a pub on Sunday.

All signs and allusion, this thread which weaves through the main story of the book, seems to be the time lord’s attempts to rationalize the events of the previous novel particularly his torture, except that there’s a suggestion that this is real and everything else is a story; the events of The Scarlett Empress are referenced as well as the Magrs authored past Doctor novels in relation to a fantasy book that Fitz is reading and the Doctor’s old friend Sally is writing and the most exciting action is the build up to a dinner party given to Sally and her dog Canine and the Beryl Reid inspired incarnation of Iris Wyldetyme.

If the rest of the book is a story, it’s extremely busy and just as imaginative as Magrs previous writing.  The Doctor and friends are on board the Federation starship Nepotist when it visits a pocket dimension called the Enclave, inhabited by a race of glass people, lorded over by Daedalus, a talking Elephant.  Meanwhile, Iris, now regenerated to resemble Jane Fonda in Barbarella mode saves a couple of  middle-aged women and a young man from a shopping centre with has been attacked by giant owls, little suspecting that the boy is the Blue Angel of the title, resting in their company on Earth.

The Federation starship Nepotist with its erstwhile Captain Blandish are an obvious Star Trek homage, but this isn’t an affectionate Galaxy Quest-style reading, highlighting instead how the show’s multi-cultural philosophy always seemed to be filtered through jingoistic US eyes -- literally, we come in peace, shoot to kill.  As Blandish orders the removal of the Valcean’s capacity to create weapons of mass destruction by effectively leveling the place, it looks like a comment on the Iraq war with Blandish as the Bush figure -- except this was published in 1999 and none of that had happened yet.

Given how much of Doctor Who’s premise has been strip mined for episodes in that series (my favourite being the pod which randomly turned up during the Enterprise episode, Future Tense which was discovered to be ‘dimensionally transcendental) it seems only fair that we pay them back literally in a novel fashion.  What Magrs and Hoad do, however, is have that crew rerun elements of an Enterprise adventure from kamikaze decisions and fodder for fan fiction effectively crashing through the very different kind of fiction which is going on around them.

Like Interference, it’s the kind of story in which all the stuff you’d expect to happen in Doctor Who happens but not necessarily in the order you’d expect it to happen.  Unlike Interference, there’s a more clearer rhyme and reason for it -- in the idiom within with its written and the way the authors are investigating the nature of fantasy, hurling elements of a typical television tie-in novel and material from a far more literary realm to see which is the stronger or whether they can co-exist and ultimately deciding that they can’t.

So, yes, there are the wonderfully described men of glass whose only organic component, their heart can be seen beating in their chest; there’s the one-dimensional corridors which link the edges of the Enclave, weaving our adventurers in and out of each other; the flying owls who in one atmospheric scene become the transport for Iris and Fitz sitting on their back, clutching their feathers, this whole kingdom infused with winter light, the primary colours blue and white.

And in the midst of it all the Doctor, in his element, if not quite back to being his old self, not quite able to do the right thing, perhaps following Iris’s lead a bit too much.  With the latter taking the lion’s share of the action, happy to blow off a ray gun, we’re supposed to see their differing methods and why, despite everything our Doctor is the hero whereas Iris, no matter how likeable has too many secrets for comfort.  She is still a treat though, more prone to costume changes and catching Fitz’s eye.  If I was the Doctor I would have settled down with her years ago.  Yes, and her bus.

Fitz has become something of an unknown quantity -- in so many ways still the man we knew, but in so many others a stereotypical version, even more of a womaniser but also even more loyal to the Doctor.  The ironically named Compassion’s still coalescing too -- a product of the Remote, still able to tap into the signals around her, but not quite a complete person except in terms of her survival instincts.  One of the best scenes in the novel is a screwball discussion between them on Iris’s bus, straight from Capra's It Happened One Night about the Doctor’s tendency to babble in which the time lord is thrown into the Clark Gable role and Compassion becomes Claudette Colbert.  He points out to her that she hasn't been travelling with him long enough to know how these conversations are supposed to go.

As the wheels of the story crank to a stop, the book closes literally on a question, twenty of them in fact which intimate that as the reader suspects there’s far more to the story than has been presented in these 274 pages and perhaps more to be revealed in the future.  Like Buffy’s Restless, some elements will probably become really important across the general arc of the books whereas other will be ignored completely.  But if I’m being honest, much as a love this, I’m getting pretty tired with the books being comments on the Doctor or the Doctor Who concept.  What happened to telling a good, light generic adventure with nuts and bolts shocks and laughs?

Five Questions

1.  According to the wikipedia, 'The novel attracted some controversy for its portrayal of an alternate, apparently homosexual, version of the Doctor'.  Did I miss something?

2.  Just how much of a fan of Marlene Dietrich is Paul Magrs?

3.  How did either of the authors get through this interview without plugging the book?

4.  Do they know there's a very good club in Liverpool called the Blue Angel?

5.  Will Iris return?

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