Stephen Baxter’s The Wheel of Ice reviewed.

Audio  Earlier today, the BBC’s official Doctor Who website posted a short film, pieced together from bits of storyboard, a script by Chris Chibnall and a voiceover from Arthur Darvill explaining what happened to Rory’s Dad after his son and wife were zapped back in time at the close of The Angels Take Manhattan.  Even in this rudimentary form it’s poignant, bittersweet epilogue providing the footnote which was missing from the televised episodes.  It’s called P.S., post script, and is structurally rather like those Brief Encounter prose shorts which appeared in Doctor Who Magazine way back when.  It’s also doing what many past Doctor stories have across the years: it concretes in a narrative or thematic or character hole which the television series either neglected to, or as is most of often the case didn’t think of.

Stephen Baxter’s The Wheel of Ice is another of those post-scripts.  The first of these past-Doctor novels since the television series returned in 2005, it features what’s now called the Second Doctor, Jamie and Zoe in an exciting adventure on a ring of one of Saturn’s moons, where a mining colony ekes out an existence supplying raw materials for an Earth which is stretched to its own limit.  Amid equipment failures and social unrest, the TARDIS crew find themselves trapped by some cosmic time anomaly and quickly realise that in order to break free they have to investigate what’s causing the malfunctions and fuelling the disruption within the colony.  Before long, as is always the case in these situations, they're blamed for both, subjected to medical testing and only the Doctor’s charisma can save them.

It’s a post-script because amid all of that it’s also a story about the colony’s children.  In the 60s, for a show designed to attract inquisitive, very rarely were the stories specifically about them.  Susan and Vicky were both supposed to be viewpoint characters, but stories weren't often specifically about them (which was one of the reasons Carole Ann Ford left the programme) or the people they might meet on a planet and that continued right through to the modern era.  One of the major threads in The Wheel of Ice is how the children’s rights have been neglected because of the apparent need for them to work the mines, the argument being that like settlers on old Earth who equally exploited their young folk, they’re working for some greater cause, an argument which ultimately unravels as the cause of the all the mischief unravels.

Like those other post-script it’s also an attempt to place those 60s stories in the context of the franchise elements which were established later, threading various parts of its story through the later history of the programme and established fixed points but cleverly without subjected the TARDIS team to information they shouldn’t otherwise be exposed to (think the treatment of the Borg and Ferengi in Star Trek: Enterprise).  Though not too far ahead; unlike Gareth Roberts’s novelisation of Shada, the references are kept well within classic Who and indeed almost as though the 60s show was simply foreshadowing events in future stories close at hand rather like a continuity strung modern affair like Fringe.  Such things were the 90s post-scripts also built on and Baxter’s clearly paying a debt to them too.

It also takes full advantage of its medium.  After a number of recent pretty straightforward nuWho novels providing what amounts to a novelisation of an episode which hasn’t been made, it’s refreshing to return to a book which is able to have “interlude” sections revealing the back story of key characters (one of which, an A.I.-like deviation about a robot, is one of the best pieces of writing produced in connection with the franchise) and that’s unafraid to take excursions into what’s often described as “hard science”, something the author is especially known for.  Not having read nearly enough of anything, I’m not that aware of his work.  It’d be interesting to know the extent to which he’s subsumed his style in service to the franchise.  It’s certainly a clearer listen than Michael Moorcock’s attempt.

It’s always authentic.  In its audio form, each of the eight discs roughly covers what you might expect in a typical television episode, albeit on a massive budget with an infinitely extended shooting schedule.  All of the main characters are present and correct aided by David Troughton’s glorious reading in which he once again eerily recreates his father’s performance and offers a pretty decent Fraser too.  Baxter’s prose has a conversational style which really lends itself to be read out loud and although it's arguable whether it’s a story which needs telling over this extended length, it’s never less than compelling (which is something which can’t always be said of adventures from the television period in which this is set).  If Baxter wants to return to our universe at any point, he’d be most welcome.

Doctor Who: The Wheel of Ice by Stephen Baxter is out now from AudioGo.  Review copy supplied.

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