Earthworld.

EarthworldBooks  Having enjoyed the first seven of the Watcher’s guides to the Doctor’s various incarnations that are being used to bulk out Doctor Who Magazine during the off season, I was quite looking forward to the Eighth Doctor survey, wondering how they were going to boil down into four pages eight or nine years worth of stories and all of that history. Disappointing, the Watcher elected to celebrate the Paul McGann era by talking about the other Doctors a lot more and then after mention the spin-offs in passing on one page, decided on the opposite side that he’d only in fact had one companion before going on to suggest that Grace might not count anyway. Reading this, I felt like a born again Christian at a Richard Dawkins lecture.

The problem is, despite Big Finish’s best efforts and the reprints of the comic strips, eighth's tenure is receding further and further into limbo, far more than the sevenths even. These books might well be available second hand or at an increased collectors price brand new, but with both of these incarnations and all of the missing and past Doctor material, there is a bunch of stuff which isn’t being remerchandised, taken advantage of, reprinted in deluxe editions with additional material such as the authors interviews that appeared on the BBC website or retrospectives. Largely celebrated by an ageing fandom, they're receding into memory like prog rock albums still only available in vinyl.

I expect it’s because tonally many of these novels were written for a much older audience, in some cases akin to Torchwood, and Jacqueline Rayner’s Earthworld is an example of that (and I think that segway was worthy of Christine Bleakley on The One Show). I’d be genuinely uncomfortable about letting a Doctor Who Adventures reader anywhere near this, not least because their role models are teen terrorists or dictators. People don’t just die in here. There are massacres. Someone is shot in the head. There’s sexual humour and at least ten different existential crisis’s. And this is one of the lighter reads. Imagine if they turned over Larry Miles’s Interference in the hopes of reading about the exploits of Sarah Jane and K9. Oye-vay.

It’s over a year since I read the last of the novels in this series, Escape Velocity, which puts me rather in the same position as the Doctor, only vague memories of what’s gone before, impressions. There are continuity references which I’ve had to go and look up, but given the number of novels which came before anyway and the one read nature of these things I wonder if it’s likely a lot of readers at the time were reaching for Google or Lycos or whatever search engine people were using then. “Oh she’s the one from…” “Oh that what that means …” It’s brilliant that 8th novels were willing to take advantage of their own rich continuity but it’s bugger when it comes to wringing out some emotional resonance.

The Doctor still barely able to remember his own name, Fitz and newcomer Anji (as per the cover) land in what appears to be prehistoric Earth. Rather than a rewrite of some Doctor Who Discovers, pretty soon it's revealed to be a Jupiter-based theme park filled with various historical recreations using androids, presided over by three princesses, Asia, Africa and Antarctica, the daughters of the President, who, after being locked away for all their natural lives have turned psychotic and are using the newly minted attraction for fun, frolics and murder. It’s Lewis Carroll meets Michael Crighton, Alice through the Futureworld, with the timelord falling into his comfortable role of regime toppler and status quo dissembler.

Rayner’s story is about history, memory and identity. Set in the far future, the various historical recreations are misrememberings of reality, in which Elvis really was a king, Mort and Arthur were mortal enemies and London is a City of Swings! The sisters have created android copies of themselves. The Doctor is clearly pretending that his memory has returned to some extent even though he doesn’t know how to use his sonic screwdriver. Fitz realises that he’s a copy of the original grown from biomass and can’t decide if that means he really exists. Anji is dealing with life without her boyfriend Dave by writing him emails that he can’t receive.

There’s an odd balance at work here. On the one hand this is a surreal romp, which like Frontier In Space actually, largely consists of the regulars being captured and escaping only to be captured again. The derivative nature of the scenario is largely overcome by the more surreal details though it never quite manages to brush off the impression of this being a old-nuWho refresh of The Mind Robber with a certain embracing of the fiction the only way to survive. The three sisters, because of their one dimensionality, eventually become quite irritating adversaries, rather like the Billy Bunter knock off in The Celestial Toymaker and their father lacks presence also.

But Raynor has an amazing handle on the two companions. This is the first time Fitz’s status has really been addressed and there’s a wonderful sequence courtesy of a mind-probe in which we read his biography backwards, demonstrating what I always thought – that all of the women he’s loved across time have all meant something in their own way – it hasn’t really just been an exercise in shagging about. One of the scenes, in which his whole identity comes into question is one of the most powerful these novels have generated and carefully underscore that the Fitz who was picked up in the 60s is gone. All hail Fitz 2.0 Business Edition.

Anji too becomes a three dimensional figure in this writer’s hands, filled to the brim with believable girly foibles laced with grief being set aside for the duration the adventure. She’s accompanied for much of the adventure by Jupiter freedom fighter co-incidentally called ANJI and it’s fun to find her having to deal with teenagers who’s bark is louder than their bite. I’m just not convinced that she is Milly from This Life here. If indeed she was the inspiration, Rayner takes her far beyond that into Martha or Donna territory, especially the latters mix of sarcasm and surprising intensity.

The novel climaxes curiously with an excursion into a recreation of a different current Saturday night entertainment (hint – that’s current Saturday night entertainment) and I wasn’t entirely happy with the stuttering climax, which reads rather like reaching the end of a six parter and then finding that one of the Terrys has sent along another one just in case. But for 90% of its pagination this is a fine introduction for Anji’s character and a decent justification as to why Fitz would be sticking with the series for the rest of its run. But I’m worried about the sustainability of this new version of the Doctor. The big speeches and frivolity are all still there but they lack weight. I hope he gets some of his marbles back. It’s depressing when we read that he thinks Sam was a bloke.
Next time: You've nothing to fear but ...

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