Vanishing Point.

Books After Nick Wallace’s brilliant evocation of an era in Fear Itself, we’re now back in the actual era he was trying to recreate. It’s to his credit that the transition is seamless. There’s nothing in Stephen Cole’s novel to indicate that the Doctor and his friends haven’t just been in and around Jupiter, and indeed the suggestion is that this doesn’t follow on directly from Earthworld, like Peri in Caves of Androzani, Anji’s well embedded into the TARDIS life and has the connection and trust with the Doctor which most companions develop, of the kind which can only be a consequence of the three of them having been in each other’s company for a bit.

To a large extent, Vanishing Point is archetypal Doctor Who. The Doctor and his companions become split up and embroiled within the status quo of a human colony, investigate the oppression which is being wrought on the people and lead them to overthrow the dictator. It’s precisely the kind of thing that the more post-modern authors use as shorthand when they’re trying to define precisely who the Doctor is and his mission. In this case, the local colour is that gives it shades of other franchises, as the back cover explains, this is “a world where death has meaning, where God exits and faith is untested”

Or as Anji jokes herein like “some bad Star Trek episode”. Actually as the story unfolds it’s far closer to Lost a few years early though to explain the detail of that would be far too big a spoiler for these brief milestones/reviews. If we were to play the Trek game, we’d see bits of The Masterpiece Society, Miri and one of those DS9 episodes when Odo thinks Garak has done something sneaky. This allows Cole to offer some meditation on religion and blind faith and through the character of Dark, a kind of lapsed monk, to investigate if it’s possible for someone to have a strong belief system even if the come to understand that the religion they once respected is bunk.

Unlike Star Trek, in which such things tended to be hashed out in a primitive villiage or a space station, Cole throws all of this up against a major metropolitan area filled with hundreds of thousands of people.  They have jobs, they're clearly human.  At one point the characters are so wrapped up in their adventure, they shocked when they realise that the quickest way for them to journey into danger would be to call a taxi which duly arrives.  Unlike some stories were it seems the entire population of a planet is involved, most of these colonists go about blissfully unaware that their world could end, or for that matter the level of control which has been placed upon them.  The Matrix was released very close to when this book was written and that can't be a coindidence.

All of the characters are nicely written and for once in a Doctor Who story all ultimately have a part to play in the climax other than simply cannon/jeopardy fodder. Of the day players, Etty is the standout, a farmer with a fair few secrets hiding in her barn is strong willed and clever I imagined the author had cast Samantha Morton in the role in his head. Nathaniel Dark is that other rare thing in Doctor Who – an alpha male who isn’t either stupid or a villain and someone the timelord can talk to on a level basis and debate as the Doctor uses him as a sounding board during the investigation towards discovering the truth of the society.

Amongst the regulars, Anji’s settling in nicely though as in Earthworld, I’m still finding it difficult to picture Amita Dhiri in her role. This website favours Konnie Huq, which is fine (can she act?) but perhaps I should just be relying on my imagination. It’s not helped by her not really being that clearly defined as a character, we don’t really know what she “would” or “wouldn’t” do in the same way that we might Martha (which probably just indicates the variance from how classic characters were still being developed even ten years ago). Fitz is very much back to being the ladies man, though after his revelation in Earthworld that he’s not the original, but a memory of the original, it’s still not clear if he’s motion going.

Speaking of which, once again we can detect that this amnesiac Doctor is rather acting the role of himself, an eternity old but unable to remember any of it. It’s entirely possible I’m just applying that interpretation after the fact because Cole largely writes him as a generic Eighth Doctor, though without the usual historical reference points. He’s funny, smart, a bit dopey and have Paul McGann’s speech patterns all over them. Except when he brandishes a pistol or just plain violent, and we know it’s because he’s not in control of his faculties, he doesn’t realise it’s something the Doctor wouldn’t do (unlike Revolution Man which was just poor characterisation).

It’s these moments too which remind the reader this is an Eighth Doctor novel, that this isn’t a story which could be quickly rewritten for the Fifth Doctor or could be pulled out a drawer for Matt Smith’s face to be stuck on the cover. It’s been quite some time since I finished Fear Itself and after enjoying the slightly more juvenile fairy tale flavour of more recent spin-off fiction, quite a surprise to be reminded just how “for mature readers” the franchise had become in this form which explains why the BBC seems less than keen to promote and reprint its old back catalogue (though I know some of these novels are being reproduced independently) despite interest from new fans keen to look at all of the show’s history.

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