The Shadows of Avalon.

Books  Back then in the company of the Eighth Doctor on this ride through his lives.  Much as I enjoyed those Tenth Doctor novels there’s something to be said about picking up a spin-off novel and being sure of the universe contained inside.  Regular readers might have gathered that despite some of my protestations I’m a big fan of continuity and one of joys of a novel like Paul Cornell’s The Shadows of Avalon is that occurs in a Whoniverse where continuity is being created and developed, it's not just a single story that occurs and will never be referred to again.

I love too that the book not only references the television series and is part of the ongoing EDA plot-arc but also refers back unapologetically to the Virgin New Adventures and actually effectively carries on a story sparked back there, for the first time unifying the two continuities in a very substantial way.  Not only is Paul’s own creation Professor Bernice Summerfield name checked (rather than being ‘an archaeologist’ the Doctor once knew) but this also features the new regenerated version of the Brigadier I’d heard about.

This makes the book written by a fan for fans, repaying the investment they've put into keeping with the novels since the series left the air in ‘89.  Having not read many of the New Adventures, I’m sure there were other references in there but again I’ve never liked being in a situation were everything is explained, where I understand everything.  It’s almost like being a child watching the new series and hearing about Axons or Sea Devils and knowing that there’s a whole universe out there to be discovered.  Iit's also influenced the new series too, however inadvertently -- the kind of portal into the time vortex that the young Master looks into during SOD U LOTT makes an appearance here.

If  it hasn’t become apparent already, I was really impressed with The Shadows of Avalon, not least because as you can see it was signed by the author ( it was a present).  I mean look at the cover for goodness sake!  It does exactly that thing which Doctor Who has always been good at -- clashing the relatively conventional with the relatively fantastical and seeing what happens, but in this case its on a rather larger scale than that Yeti who seems to spend an inordinate length of time on a toilet in Tooting Beck.  It’s A Bridge Too Far meets The Lord of the Rings as a portal opens between Britain and the dream world Avalon and after a strategic pact war breaks out between a UNIT co-ordinated British Army and the mythic creatures inside in which not everything is as it seems because (as the book synopsis reveals) a couple of Gallifreyan agents are manipulating the situation for their own ends.

If  that plot summary lacks for the presence of the Doctor, it’s because the main theme of the book is how our characters are coping with obsolescence.  Eighth is still dealing with being knocked about the pocket universes and tortured and the realisation that with the Faction Paradox bouncing up and down on his own personal timeline that nothing he does could matter because it could be changed (his potential multiple origins are mentioned) so what’s the point?  The new younger Alistair, having recently lost his wife Doris in an accident can’t find purpose in having to essentially re-experiencing a life already lived.  Fitz is feeling lost in the cracks of the adventure, missing the girlfriend we met in Parallel 59, and Compassion is feeling the pressure to change.  Like much of Cornell's work it mixes the big epic adventure with the small human experience.

It’s also a book that constantly surprises.  Like Sarah-Jane in Interference, The Brigadier is given a massive chunk of the story, in many way his journey has equal if not more prominence than anything else.  He’s a perfect extrapolation of the man we knew and in a style not dissimilar to the new tv series, he’s given that emotional arc -- dealing with his own personal tragedy leading to a range of critical mistakes which cost lives.  Rather than simply standing around blustering, sending his men to shoot an alien and looking foolish, he’s given room to become a three dimensional being.  When he reaches a pit of despair it's gut wrenching and yet understandable under the circumstances, it doesn't come out of the blue.  I’d imagine some of the older fans will have found this material difficult but as someone sometimes frustrated by the lack of emotional depth in the classic series I lapped it up.

His course of action leads to a rift with the Doctor, who is also feeling marginalised for the reasons discussed above.  If I wished anything from the book it’s that there would be more of its title character, although his absence could be a planned attempt to show how the universe copes when the star timelord is out of sorts.  After he and The Brig are stranded on Avalon for various reasons, he actually tries to build himself a new Tardis out of ply-wood and only really perks up when the aforementioned Queen, Mab sends him on a mission and he only really becomes his Doctorish self in the close stages (which I’ll come to later).  He’s become an old a wary traveller of late, almost as though he’s finally had too many experiences and adventures and seen too many people die and that it’s all just stopped being fun.

Avalon too is a wonderful creation, a fusion of classic fantasy archetypes shaken about and plugged into a new power source, a world which exists in the dreams of a single being.  There be dragons here and lizards who it’s inferred are Silurians and beautiful if cynical queens in big castles.  The impression given is that this is the world that would go on to become King Arthur’s realm and then our own -- that this is his ancestry in much the same way that Elizabethan Britain is to us.  The pieces are almost in place.  But it’ll never develop into that -- Arthur and the place where the Doctor is Merlin exists on yet another plain of existence.  It’s another approach to fantasy from the people who brought you Hyspero but more Tolkien than The Brothers Grimm.  But again, it’s scientifically rationalised and the franchise’s dictum than what looks like magic is actually some higher form of technology is carefully maintained, just as it should be.

There isn’t much, but the book also features the most realistic depiction of near-contemporary Earth I‘ve seen in a while, at least in terms of these novels.  The book is set in 2012 (no sign of the Olympics and the beacon of hope and love, thank goodness) but the opening stages in which Compassion is tasked with learning about humanity and later when she and Fitz are tasked to find someone unreal in the real world you do get a lovely sense of the space inside the M25.  The EDAs have spent a surprising lack of time overall on contemporary Earth in London even though it would provide some really potent images, at least with this Tardis crew, as a section of this novel shows.

But in the end, without giving too much away I hope, it’s all about Compassion.  As with the best story-arcs, there have been hints and allegations as to what’s been happening to her and when revealed unsurprisingly its Gallifrey related, leading to the biggest surprise of the book, the appearance of President Romana.  She’s now in her third incarnation and very much the Imperiatrix of the audio series, her travels with the Doctor a distant memory.  That she would send these two agents, only a parsec away from the agents of the Enemy from The Taking of Planet 5, perfectly and coldly demonstrates the change in her from the girl who skipped about Paris in a school uniform.  It’s a tragedy to see her like this but it shows the franchise moving on and not dwelling and allowing for friends to become enemies.

At the close of the novel the Doctor’s on the run again, has a sense of purpose and as one long story ends another begins.  The series has never been better than when the Doctor has something of his own to fight for.  In the early days, it was control of his Tardis, then it was gaining his freedom from Earth, then it was getting to Metebelis 3 (ish), then search for the Key to Time, then on the run from the Black Guardian, then trying to get Tegan back to Heathrow (again, ish), then dealing with a duff regeneration and subsequent trial, then with the excesses of the universe and now trying to save his a friend from an ex-friend.  Sadly, looking at the pile of books on my shelf and the burning bright orange cover which looms there I don’t think this state of affairs is going to last long.  But it should be fun while it lasts.

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