Wishing Well.

TV At what point does a spin-off novel become a missing adventure? In the dark decade such things were carefully delineated. Missing adventures usually featured a previous Doctor in a story which could be slotted into old television era, with a sister series featuring the current incumbent, Seventh or Eighth Doctors which weren’t really missing because they wouldn’t have fitted anywhere. Now we have a group of releases which feature the current Doctor but which are supposed to have happened during a gap in the previous series – in that foggy area around Blink when we didn’t really know what our hero was up to apart from being trapped in the past and going all Robin Hood on something. So they really are missing adventures but don’t really seem like it. Perplexing isn’t it. That said Nick Brown from Kasterborous thinks that we fans are cool now. After rereading this paragraph I’m not so sure at least about myself.

So when you pick up something like Trevor Baxendale’s Wishing Well, you’re filling in a gap in the previous series, finding out exactly what happened before the time travellers stopped off in Cardiff for a recharge, accidentally picked up Captain Jack and from a certain point of view inadvertently doomed the future of the human race. There is the opportunity to provide a different kind of entertainment to the television show, situations sometimes that simply aren’t very Saturday night, action that only really works in a textual context. That’s probably why often, these novels sometimes have quite an old school flavour and Wishing Well is a good example of that featuring as it does ‘something dark and sinister lurking in a country village’ – it’s The Daemons, K9 and Company, The Stones of Blood and that great bit in Lance Parkin’s novel The Dying Days when the red death permeates Adisham.

The set up then: after a warning from the local homeless man not to, The Doctor and Martha pitch up in the Derbyshire village of Crighton Mere and become mixed up in a war of words between some students, the local gentry and restoration committee over the titular water source which may or not have buried treasure at the bottom. The Doctor’s convinced that something darker is going on and it slowly becomes apparent that a far more malevolent force than the real ale at the local pub. Baxendale has become something of an old hand when it comes to spin-off fiction with a clutch of Eighth Doctor novels and the odd Big Finish audio to his credit. He’s always been a technically very proficient writer even if his work hasn’t ever been lauded with the likes of Parkin and Cornell. His magnum opus though are his cherishable kid orientated comic strips for Doctor Who Adventures -- short, colourful and always fun journeys full of character (which is what apparently led him to getting a commission here).

This is pretty much the opposite of that. There’s a palpable atmosphere of dread throughout, Baxendale clearly enjoying the chance to do some of the omnipresent darkness that might not be appreciated sandwiched between the mazes and word searches of DWA. Until the final forty or so pages too it’s not particularly pacey, choosing instead to let our heroes get lost in the mystery and the red herrings, attempting to cover the truth about the well amongst the old wives tales and urban legends. That said is isn’t a particularly complex tale – most of the scenes happen around the mouth of the well, in the tunnels underneath and at the local manor and just now and then you do wish that it was a more complex story which is tricky with this number of pages and potential audience, but some of the scenes are rather stagey considering that they’re being rendered in prose.

Apart from the oh so typical students, there’s an admirable lack of younglings amongst the characters. Baxendale instead concentrates on Sadie and Angela, two witty local pensioners (‘I’m 83’ the latter muses at some point) and Henry Gaskin the local land owner. It’s the cast of the Christmas To The Manor Born, probably, which adds that different tone to the proceedings and teaches kids the valuable lesson that the older you are, the wiser you generally are too (the Doctor is 903 or thereabouts after all). There’s a gentle animosity between Angela and Henry after he apparently let her husband die in a climbing accident that adds an extra thematic layer about the frailty of human life which pays off at the very end. The Doctor and Martha are very well evoked too with the timelord in particularly making a couple of big speeches and getting very excited about something his companion’s suggested.

The book just lacks ambition, an extra zing. Since it is in prose and there is an unlimited budget it’s baffling that Baxendale would choose such a mundane setting and small scale story. The latest Doctor Who Magazine reveals that he didn’t – he’s writing to a remit the ‘something dark and sinister lurking in a country village’ idea coming from series editor Justin Richards. Presumably the plan, like the old fashioned BBC Missing Adventures is to produce something which is indistinguishable from its given era and it certainly carries that off (particularly the villain of the week and the resolution which will both be familiar to fans of a certain tv episode and oddly enough readers of one of this quarter’s other releases Peacemaker). If that’s what you’re look for then there’s much to enjoy and plenty of humour amid the gloom; otherwise seek out the author’s strips for Doctor Who Adventures. They’re ace and totally unlike anything else you’ll ever read.

Wishing Well, by Trevor Baxendale, is released by BBC Books on 26 December. ISBN 9781846073489.

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