Fearful Symmetries

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04 June, 2013

Goodbye Sixie: Spiral Scratch by Gary Russell



Being a big fan of the Sixth Doctor I approached Spiral Scratch with some anxiety. Yes, Sixie deserved to have a proper regeneration story but this was the end of the road for the Sixth Doctor PDAs. How would this farewell story hold up?

As with Instruments of Darkness Gary Russell devotes the opening chapters of the book to introducing a bevy of characters. First there are two alien children who find themselves in the medieval village of Wulpit. Then in Cold War Bucharest Prof. Joseph Tungard and his wife find themselves exiled to England after Joseph dares to go against the Romanian government. Over in England Sir Bertrand Lamprey loses his home and wife to a fire while in a different England two parents visit their daughter's grave.

For his part The Doctor gets it in his head to go visit his old friend Prof. Rummus who runs the Library of Carsus. But he and Mel both have surreal moments. Mel is in the console room when it plays host to various alternate Doctors and Mels including one incarnation of our hero clad in all black with a scar across one eye. This coterie of Time Lords act a bit like The Doctors in "The Five Doctors" as they try to put their heads together to puzzle things out but the new ones disappear before any answers are arrived at. The "real" Mel is left wondering who or what the Lamprey the other Doctors mentioned is. The "real" Doctor also had a strange encounter and is convinced that they must go to Carsus.

There they meet Rummus and experience more timey-wimey events including, disturbingly, the dead bodies of Rummus and The Doctor. With people's timelines running amok, Rummus and The Doctor postulate that the Vortex Spiral has been scratched and that something needs to be done pronto.

At this point I was completely enthralled with Spiral Scratch. Several characters have been introduced and time has gone all non-linear with alternate versions of the characters wandering into scenes, offering tantalizing clues, and then disappearing. Unfortunately, Russell can't keep the momentum going.

It turns out that Rummus stole an ancient Gallifreyan device called the Spiral Chamber and has used it to study the Lamprey, an inhabitant of the Vortex endowed with a voracious appetite for time. Rummus unknowingly allowed the Lamprey to cross from the Vortex into our reality and it is now running roughshod over everything and everyone, merrily eating timelines as it goes. This in itself is a fine story idea but the Lamprey – this eldritch creature from the Vortex which threatens the whole of reality – actually looks like a lamprey. Furthermore, while it's genuinely fun to read about The Doctor, Mel, and their various alternate incarnations running around in different time streams, the subsidiary characters just never quite gel for me. There's too much going on for the story to give them their due and they're just not that interesting.

It's not that they're horrible characters, but rather that Rummus and his relationship to The Doctor would have been more interesting to explore. He's not just some scientist meddling in areas which he shouldn't, he's a friend of The Doctor's who sets in motions events which could destroy everything. I'd much rather have had a more intimate story exploring the dynamic between these two as well as the Library on Carsus. It is billed as the largest repository of knowledge in the universe – what an interesting place! - and certainly could have been a wonderful jumping off point for investigation but instead is used sparingly.

I wish that Russell had narrowed the scope of the story a bit to include less characters and less worlds. There are some amusing moments but a bit here and a bit there in alternate timelines and other worlds just feels unsatisfying. It's like Russell dragged these places into the story more to broaden it and give it an epic feel than anything else. The alternate versions of The Doctor and Mel are a clever device here and I think it would have been more interesting to have them appearing leaving behind a tantalizing clue before disappearing throughout the story rather than being more fully-realized as they are here.

The setup in Spiral Scratch was great but the execution gets bogged down with too many people that aren't particularly interesting. To give Russell his due, the regeneration scene at the end was done well and leads directly into "Time and the Rani" with the Rani saying, “Leave the girl, it’s the man I want...”

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|| Palmer, 2:33 PM

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