The Burning.

BurningBooks  Let’s begin with a quick recap, by way of a reminder and an introduction for newer readers.  In the off season I’ve taken to reading my way through the Eighth Doctor novels published by BBC Books between the broadcast of the TV Movie with the Pertwee logo and the new series with the whooshing taxi-cab sign and then publishing reviews up here in the style of Doctor Who Magazine’s Time Team.  Since this is, and I know it's hard to believe, the first time since last September that there hasn’t been some iteration of the franchise on television, I’m returning to them again, a junkie reaching for his methadone.

It’s 2000 AD and the chance of a new television series is looking even less likely than ever.  Paul McGann is in his second series of adventures for Big Finish, but potential readers of the novels are weary of jumping onboard the literary TARDIS because of the perceived amount of continuity that has built up over previous years.  Having read said books, I can see what they mean.  The range needed a relaunch, a way for newbies to join and be able to follow the story without having read the previous few dozen books, to make this corner of the franchise accessible.  So having tied up as many loose ends as possible in The Ancestor Cell, The Burning brought a reboot of sorts, heralded with an article in the party newsletter and some exciting in-store advertising.

The Doctor has destroyed his home planet in an effort to save the cosmos from an intractable enemy during a time war.  The apparent last of the timelords, he’s travelling alone, attempting to find a place in the world, an anomaly falling into myth.  It’s unsurprising in hindsight that series editor and opening novel writer Justin Richards would take much the same approach as Russell T Davies.  Making the Doctor the last of his race automatically throws out a range of baggage and adds bags of pathos, though you couldn’t have offered The Burning or something similar as the opening episode of the new series, simply because with the exception of the Doctor all of the icons are gone.  Imagine the nation sitting down for Rose and finding instead the period Torchwood with considerably less featherbed jigging (the title perhaps referring to a side effect of some particularly worrying STD).

The author & editor’s deviation here is to drop the Doctor in late nineteenth century, without his memories or experience, making him a wanderer not in the fourth dimension but rural England.  The reader knows far more about the hero than he himself does, and the title of the series becomes a question it’s main character is asking rather than the reader – he knows that his name but he’s not entirely sure why.  One of the motives Richards gave for removing continuity from the Doctor as well as the series was to place him in the same position as readers new to the series of forever being one step behind, of not knowing how to kill a Cyberman or Dalek straight away, of not being able to walk into a situation and have an answer having been there a hundred times before. 

It’s perfectly reasonable approach except, as fellow author Lance Parkin noted in a recent interview, it also saves the Doctor from having to deal with what he’s done, which in story and character terms is a horrendous missed opportunity.  Compare and contrast with how Davies began the first series of nu-Who in which we met a timelord dealing very specifically with survivor guilt, often impotent to act in case he went too far again, the fog of war still bubbling under.  Imagine if we were instead witnessing an intact Doctor experiencing a century stuck on Earth, unable to change history and also having to deal with the history he himself has destroyed.  As Parkin says:  ““In retrospect […] the problem with destroying Gallifrey wasn’t destroying Gallifrey, it was that the Doctor wasn’t forced to live with the consequences. The new show does that so beautifully. Often, watching the telly series is a bit like peeking at the answers to a test I sat years ago … ‘oh, that’s how you do it “

The familiar figure in The Burning, then, both is and isn’t the Doctor.  He’s very similar to John Smith, the humanised timelord from tv’s Human Nature.  Having spent some time wondering Britain, he’s absorbed the local culture and idiom and become the kind of Victorian gentlemen his image has always suggested – in his turn of phrase and action he’s proudly British.  Yet, he still retains that spark of brilliance, confidence and arrogance even, that sets him apart from that human counterparts.  He clearly knows that he is unlike his fellow countrymen, despite not knowing who he is, mainly because he still retains his vast reservoirs of knowledge which seem to surface when needed (cf, Sam Beckett’s swiss cheese memory in Quantum Leap).  This makes his most Doctorish moments quite poignant because we’re not sure if he’s acting to try and fill a space.

It’s wonder considering the job that Richards gave himself rejigging the premise that the novels turns out to be as entertaining as it is and still retain a tone which is inescapably Doctor Who.  A fissure appears near a small mining town on its uppers, attracting the attentions of a range of liggers including the Doctor and the man who develops into his nemesis for the two hundred odd pages the ghastly Roger Nepath, the Delgado Master with sibling issues.  Nepath has discovered that a malevolent magma lives underground and hopes to use its fiery properties to resurrect his lost sister, even though it’ll destroy the planet in the process.  Like many of these Eighth Doctor novels it prefigures the new series in many ways -- there’s budget saving transmogrification, a walking army of fire monsters and lots of running though he’s without his sonic screwdriver so has to use his wits and powers of persuasion in the end.

Structurally, it’s also a 70s Pertwee with a touch of angst, including a small army who won’t act until it’s too late because the Doctor can’t provide clear evidence only a hunch, and a couple of Brigadier substitutes, the genial Professor Dobbs from The Society of Psychical Research (which might as well be period Torchwood) and local Reverend Stobbold whose debates about how the world is oscillating between reason and industrialisation provide the thematic backbone to the story.  Significantly both of these men also fill in the companion gap, and the Doctor exposes himself – sorry – reveals his lack of memory to them both at various points.  Both are beautifully conceived and dimensional and both their fates are heartbreaking and shocking, particularly since as has become a theme in the new series they might have carried on as they were had the Doctor not stumbled into their lives.

Richards offers a slightly more complex writing style than Terrance Dicks, never losing himself in a description and understands how to pace the action.  He’s also aware of the benefits of the medium – he milks the first appearance of the Doctor in the book by playing about with the readers expectations and memory of how he’s been described in previous books and will withhold information to heighten the mystery.  If there’s any problem at all with the book, it’s the story is slightly too simple for the pagination but that’s clearly an editorial choice, like Bob Holmes in Spearhead from Space and Rusty in Rose not wanting to swamp the reader in too much plot given the amount of interest that’s already being generated by the reintroduction of a much love character.  Welcome back Doctor, whoever you are.

Next:  A century spent dodging wars in the twentieth century with an amnesiac Doctor.  Who's with me?

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