reassimilating the onrush of memories

Books It’s quiet some time since a spin-off piece of Doctor Who has created as much of an emotional reaction in me as Clare Corbett’s reading of Jonathan Morris’s novel Touched by an Angel. The televisual wing of the franchise habitually causes effusive blubbing. It’s designed that way and you’d have to be a monster not be effected by the Doctor realising he’s lived too long, on the many occasions it’s occurred to him, or when the entire cast of the Russell T Davies era are flying the TARDIS together. But even then, the effect is empathetic because of our connection with the characters, the usual drama stuff. I don’t really know what it’s like to be a eon-old timelord with weight of the cosmos on his shoulders. I don’t even have a mortgage.

Touched by an Angel is different because somehow it manages to introduce situations that put me directly at the centre of the drama. A hunting pack of Weeping Angels sends a lawyer, Mark Whittaker, into the recent past where he has in mind to take advantage of his predicament and save his wife from a car accident, with the Doctor and friends out to stop him and so the angels from destroying Earth and wrecking the web of time. Formally, it’s Blink with a TARDIS, with other elements of the show’s recent investigations into the effects of time travel, especially Father’s Day, Space/Time and A Christmas Carol, looking further back still into the Eighth Doctor series, these angels appropriating some of the Faction Paradox’s modis operandi, causing paradoxes so that they can feed.

But what Morris does, making Touched by an Angel a classic of the form, is to vividly foreground the historical details so that to an extent we live through these experience along with his protagonist. A typical example is early in the book when the older Mark forces himself into a student’s union so that he can warn his younger self about the future. What could have been a simple run around with the Doctor and his plus two attempting to keep the Whittakers apart becomes an deeply immersive evocation of what it was like to be in that kind of space during that era, the music, the smells, the heat. I know because I was there. Morris could just as well be writing about the Friday night Stomp at Leeds Met in the mid-90s.

That was the first of many occasions when I stopped what I was doing so that I could finish listening to a section. I was on my way home and sat on the park bench just outside our tower block re-assimilating the onrush of memories which Morris’s writing brought, both good and bad, the blur of dancing to Blur and of realising that I’d never be with the girl I really loved. Even after reaching the end of the chapter, after shutting off my walkman, I sat and cried. Spin-off Who’s never done that before and although I’m willing to admit that some of it probably has as much to do with my own sensitivity than Morris’s writing, it's not often in Who I've been confronted by a character who's the same age as me, going through similar experiences.  Of sorts.

Only towards the end, when Morris has managed to make me to completely love his few main characters, do I again find myself weeping again (on the train to Southport this morning). But throughout, thanks to the author’s carefully chosen references, I've been in a constant state of, if not necessarily nostalgia, re-experiencing moments in time, just like the book’s main character. A potential point of reference is Andrei Tarkovsky’s film The Mirror, which gnomically presents the memories of its autobiographical main character in three time periods, juxtaposing man and adult. Morris applies plot to that idea and allows the older man to watch and interact with his younger self and at the same time, we’re at least mentally doing the same.

Not since Lance Parkin’s Father Time has the recent past been captured this accurately, though the kids who will make part of the book’s target audience might view much of this as being as much of a history lesson as The Fires of Pompeii, even wondering why someone would go out of their way to store some first editions of Harry Potter. But since Morris also has a much more adult approach to relationships to anything else yet seen in these nuWho novels, he clearly has a much older audience in mind anyway. Both Mark and his wife Rebecca are drawn in realistic post-watershed terms, worrying about such things as careers and finding time to start a family. It’s not quite Doctor Who discovers Mike Leigh, but it’s close.

All of which makes Touched by an Angel sound like one of those novels which coincidentally happens to be Doctor Who. But nothing could be further from the truth. This works because it is Doctor Who. Like Morris’s current run as the writer on Doctor Who Magazine and the Moffat era in general, the fantasy portion of the drama concerns itself with predestination and ontological paradoxes, the Doctor and his friends dropping in on Mark and enjoying a series of ingenious set pieces developed around making sure history does run smooth. The result is purposefully episodic, one incident bouncing on to the other. Fans like me of roadshow stories like The Daleks' Masterplan and Seasons of Fear are well served.

If the Marks are needfully the best realised of the characters, Morris does handle Matt Smith’s approach to the character very well too, the manic energy, gesticulating, the railroading of people’s feelings whilst submerged in the bigger picture. Rory’s bewildered bravery is also well realised, allowed for once to take the lions share of the heroism. Only Amy is diminished, in character perhaps, but given little to do other than fall back into the old companion model of peril and questions and not at all the strong headed woman of The Girl Who Waited. But that’s probably symptomatic of the way the couple have been treated in the spin-off media in general, only of them ever really being prominent in a story at any one time.

All of which said, I wonder if my appreciation for the book would have been quite so high on the page so persuasive and pervasive is Clare Corbett’s reading. Even having previously enjoyed her performance as Amy Pond in The Hounds of Artemis, I wasn’t prepared for quite how sympathetically she’d bring an entire novel to audio, unafraid to turn the prose into a story told, rather than the rather neutral reading sometimes offered by others. Quite rightly Corbett suggests consistent versions of the main characters rather than mimicry.  But she’s at her best when illuninating the intensity of Mark love for Rebecca, making us understand utterly why he’d risk ripping a hole in the fabric of the universe to save her.  Essential.

Doctor Who: Touched by an Angel written by Jonathan Morris and read by Clare Corbett is out now from AudioGo. Review copy supplied. 

[Jonathan Morris has also put together a soundtrack to the novel using Spotify. Click here for the playlist.]

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