WolfsbaneWolfsbane was published at an interesting time for the BBC Books.  Though it was 2003, the new series was yet to be announced and interest had waned to the point that the Eight Doctor novels and those featuring past Doctors were dancing a by-monthly publication waltz.  In addition, it was felt that Eighth’s adventures had reached their narrative limit (something I’m aware of through reputation, rumour and reviews in the party newsletter) and some thought was being put into how stories could continue with the character but set within the existing chronology, fitting in to story arcs which had already been established, the lost- Sam arc, the Faction Paradox shuffle and Time War One.

This Earth bound arc too (or whatever its called) was seen as fertile ground, since the original underlying linking idea of setting each of the stories during the period of a major conflict still left gaps in the timelord’s story, plenty of hints but nothing definitive.  Since the main story was still ongoing, the decision was made to produce a past Doctor novel, but have the characters interact with this earlier version of Eighth to see if reader interest was that solid.  With the commissioning of the new series and the curtailing of this version of the book series, it all became a mute point and the only other past Eighth Doctor novel ended up being Nick Wallace’s Fear Itself, which I’ll be reading in the new order soon.

At the weekend, Steven Moffat, our incumbent president was fielding the usual questions about whether he’d bring back the Daleks, if David was doing the fifth series, who River Song is and what his vision will be and in the middle there was the inevitable question about a multiple Doctor story.  He said that the problem with writing these stories is that beyond eight minutes of bickering it’s very difficult to write a coherent story and that the best way to do it would be to have one Doctor dealing with the consequences of another’s actions.  I can't seem to find a link to where I'd read he said that but in any case, he’s right (again) even if he didn't say it in those terms. 

Looking at just the television stories, you either end up telling the same story five times or render one of the Doctors, usually the guest star, insensible.  Jac Raynor’s Wolfsbane takes parts of each of these approaches in order to collect the Fourth and Eighth Doctors together in the same tale and how much you enjoy the results, rather like EJEST and colonic irrigation depends on what mood you’re in.  And since we do have this innovative spoiler shield and because I want to be horrendously spoilerish and do that thing I usually find really annoying in reviews of basically writing a synopsis, you can carry on reading below either if you’ve already enjoyed the adventure or don’t care too much and just want to see what a big chunk of prose looks like.

Raynor presents a thrilling set up and actually it's very similar in energy to the question presented in his past series with Donna.  We know from the beginning that Harry Sullivan will die – it says so on the back of the book.  The question that then presents itself is how.  In answering, the author splits her narrative in two; Harry is accidentally left in late 1936 and gets into all sorts of adventures with the amnesiac Eighth Doctor which will ultimately lead to him being an ex-Harry and then the Fourth Doctor and Sarah land a couple of weeks later and attempt to figure out if he is indeed dead (just resting?) and if its safe for them to take the TARDIS to a couple of week’s earlier and scoop him up without breaking the laws of time.

It’s much the same basic idea that we’ve seen in such classics and the Big Finish audio Time Works and Mawdryn Undead.  Except for reasons which I suspect have something to do with some future EDA story arc which was going on at the time of publication (in reading this I’ve jumped a time track three years) Raynor lays in a mass of other unexpected complications.  Early in the book, we discover that Eighth, rather like John Smith in Human Nature, has been receiving dim notions and memories of his former self and is writing them up as short fiction.  He’s submitted them to Amazing Stories in the US, only to be rejected on the grounds that there’s so many ideas that it borders on the incoherent.  That’s exactly what we find in Wolfsbane, and its utterly, utterly bizarre.

That there would be werewolves involved somehow isn’t that unexpected given the title; we’re told that both sides of what appears to be an inevitable conflict (them and us) are attempting to utilise these being for nefarious ends or defending ones country depending upon your point of view.  What’s totally unexpected is the sudden appearance of a character from a thousand years in the past trapped asleep in a tree for the duration by a dryad from straight out of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and that said peasant, Godric remembers King Arthur’s court, Merlin and is actually carrying the Holy bloody Grail around in his back pack and that the ultimate villains of the peace are the batshit mad descendants of Morgan Le Fey and her son Mordred.

Which is where the mood question rears.  Personally I love everything to do with the grail myth (even that romantic ‘comedy’ with Richard Gere as Lancelot) so its appearance here is a glorious intrusion, even if in Whoniverse terms it makes relatively little sense.  It had been well established I thought that the Doctor was or would at some point become Merlin and it all happened in some pocket universe or alternate dimension, yet here Camelot’s presented as a piece of real estate on freehold at the close of the first century AD.  Naturally, I’ve consulted the good book, and in Ahistory, Lance Parkin suggests we can have it both ways, that there’s a court in two different dimensions with different histories and the Doctor is played by Nicole Williamson in the other one and also makes sense given the events of The Shadows of Avalon.

I’d imagine that there’d be some readers who’d be a bit uncomfortable with the way its all treated, especially how a certain cup is used in resolving one of the stories.  They’d also probably raise their eyebrows at how magic in general is dealt with, since in a ‘continuation’ of all the spell casting from Casualties of War, both versions of the Doctor seem quite happy with the concepts of werewolves being magical creatures, that the ground has woken up which is why all of this madness is occurring and that there are such things as sorcerers and not just people who’ve tapped into some unknowable technology. 

It is an amusing paradox that I’ll accept everything I’ve listed in the previous paragraph but not the Doctor joking about proving the existence of such beasties.  I think it’s because it shows an inconsistent approach to the timelord’s characterisation more than anything else.  Ninety-nine percent of the time he takes great pains to show that it’s a rational Whoniverse even when faced with something which could very well be a manifestation of the devil incarnate, yet the language here flies in the face of it.  At one point he even administers a flask full of diluted moondust to a were-person in order to trigger her change into wolf and perhaps brandishes a gun full of silver bullets.

I’d probably be even grumpier if simply on a technical level it wasn’t so cleverly written.  As with some of the best Doctor Who stories, the companions take centre stage, particularly Harry with both Doctors often leaving the story to do something 'off-stage', shadowy figures who's heroism is largely unknowable.   Given the paucity of his on screen adventure, Jac captures Sullivan's travails perfectly, that English stiff upper lip, right-on gun-ho yet terribly clumsy attitude to life. 
He’s Hugh Grant in Four Weddings and a Funeral, a bungler with a heart of gold.  There are some supreme moments of comedy where Harry realises that he’s the only one in a position to do something and he reluctantly tries his very best and often succeeds beside himself.  At one point he  wonders how he can pass by a vase quite efficiently when its not important, yet always seem to knock it from the mantle piece if something vital's going on and he has to be a bit careful.  He’s never overwritten though – we’re not given too many revelations running counter to what’s already been established – I mean clearly he has a soft-spot for Sarah-Jane – that much was much was obvious in Ian Marter’s performance.

Sarah-Jane on the other hand is a rather tragic figure all told, especially when she takes the decision to dig into Harry’s grave to discover if he’s buried in there once and for all and almost breaks herself in the process.  Yet she still retains a dry wit and is forever needling her Doctor when he’s not keeping her informed or doing what she thinks he should be doing.   She's far more of a journalist here than she was ever allowed to be when Tom took over the main role on tv, though arguably you can see the beginnings of the person she'd ultimately become in The Sarah Jane Adventures.

Her Doctor, the Fourth, has always been a surprisingly tricky figure to capture in prose, since his humors changed with the producers, sometimes soberer than others.  In Raynor's novel, we find an amalgam of approaches, the distant man of the Hinchcliffe years to begin with, then later the far more mercurial magician that Graham Williams introduced us to.  Whether that fits smoothly with the placement the story is supposed to appear in – just before Terror of the Zygons -- is open to debate, but it’s good to see ‘teeth and curls’ getting an airing once again along with his monarch of the glen look, tamoshanta and all.

This isn't, as if it wasn’t already obvious, an Eighth Doctor adventure as such.  He’s in there true, and perfectly in character as far as that version of the character goes, but he’s more of a guest star in Harry’s story and though he spares his former companion (despite apparently not knowing who the hell he is) on in taking what could be the ultimate sacrifice to save the day (though I’ve known men who’d pay good money to spend the rest of eternity with a wood nymph) whenever there’s some bit of investigating to be done, we more often than not see Harry waiting around for his return rather than follow his actions. 

There are few details as to what he’s been up to in the meantime.  He’s been drawn to this village after hearing about the death of more life stock (this time it’s sheep – meat mutilation seems to be a thing with him) and rented his own cottage (which would tally with what’s happened on the previous two occasions he’s decided to board with someone else).  He’s using science in an attempt to crack open his mystery blue box, and has come to the conclusion that he isn’t human (he refers to our species in the third person).  Oh and you should read what he’s called his chickens.  Though all of this has been slotted in by Raynor in hindsight, it’s very much in keeping with the developments from the first two books.

If all this ultimately sounds like a mish-mash, then it’s probably
because that’s exactly what the novel is.  By this point in the past Doctor novels, pretensions to write something copying the mood and spirit of the relevant era of the series has fallen away.  At no point does this feel like a Fourth Doctor television story or as I’ve said an Eighth Doctor novel for that matter.  What’s here are recognisable characters reacting within a literary or cinematic world far removed from the bounds of television; the wolf in the fold, Emmeline, seems to have walked out of Neil Jordan’s Angela's Carter's A Company of Wolves or just as Godric is a refugee from John Boorman’s Excalibur and the dryad’s played with the playful magnetism of Michelle Pfeiffer who was Titannia in Michael Hoffman’s  underrated adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream).

Then, just as the story seems to have reached a satisfying conclusion (though it’s a shame that, Harry doesn’t realise ultimately he’s met much more than some chap who happens to be called the Doctor), Raynor drops in an italicized coda which throws everything in the air.  In presenting us with multiple conclusions, all as ultimately tragic as one another, we’re potentially left with questions even more exciting that that posed originally.  Is Harry a werewolf during Zygons?  Is Sarah?  Did the Fourth Doctor put them out of their misery or did he save them both?  Or one of them?  And why do Fourth and Eighth always seem to be connected to readily in time (see also The Dying Days and Alien Bodies)?

Then finally, in the closing two pages there’s one final twist as the butler of the house meets a man in the street in a top hat wearing an eyepatch who seems to be the Doctor, the Eighth Doctor, yet isn’t.  And the problem is, having read Wolfsbane both in and yet out of order I know that the answer won’t be forthcoming just yet, especially since Eighth has a date with Fitz in 2001 to keep and sixty-five years of history to live through (as well as four more novels).  No spoilers, please.  I don't want to  know yet.

Next:  It's an enigma.

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