Fearful Symmetries

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20 August, 2013

And So It Begins: Doctor Who's New Adventures



After Doctor Who went off the air in 1990 Virgin fiction editor Peter Darvill-Evans obtained the rights to publish original stories for the series. The Virgin New Adventures kicked off in 1991 with the promise of "stories too broad and deep for the small screen". The series continued for six years and 61 titles. Some of the authors were associated with the TV show in its final years: Andrew Cartmel was teh script editor for Sylvester McCoy's era; Ben Aaronovitch wrote Remembrance of the Daleks and Battlefield for the small screen while Marc Platt is responsible for one of my all-time favorite Doctor Who stories, Ghost Light. Virgin also recruited some authors who eventually work on the new series. Indeed, Russell T. Davies, the man who resurrected the show in 2005, contributed Damaged Goods to the NAs. Paul Cornell adapted his NA, Human Nature, for the Tenth Doctor and Martha while Kate Orman's Night of the Living Dad became "Father's Day". But it all began with the Timewyrm Quadrilogy.

Timewyrm: Genesys by John Peel was the first NA to be published. The Doctor and Ace travel to ancient Mesopotamia where they meet up with Gilgamesh and the titular villain. The Timewyrm was once a woman Qataka from the planet Anu. Her experiments with mind control were not welcomed by her people and so she was put to death. Before her execution, however, she managed to offload her own mind into a snake-like cybernetic body which fled Anu. Qataka's people followed her and managed to destroy her ship but she was able to get away in an escape pod. The pod landed in ancient Mesopotamia and she adopted the name Ishtar.

While the Timewyrm is a pretty neat villain, the rest of the story is very middling. The Doctor and Ace don't resemble the ones walking across the field in the end of Survival that much. At times their bickering read more like Sixie and Peri than Seven and Ace. The story involves a lot of running back and forth between the cities of Kish and Uruk and visiting the temples at each. Dealing with Gilgamesh here and having skirmishes with the Timewyrm there. Frankly, I didn't find very much breadth or depth here. Gilgamesh is a hyper-generic cliché who wants nothing more than to eat heartily, fuck all the maidens he can, and smite his enemies. On the plus side, he has a Neanderthal named Enkidu as his companion who reminded me of Nimrod from “Ghost Light” which I had watched not long before reading the book. While Enkidu is not a particularly well-developed character, he does have a couple conversations with Ace about his loyalty to that goombah Gilgamesh. Ace reacts very badly to the social mores of the time she finds herself in and these conversations at least hint at something interesting, namely, the relativity of cultural norms. It's not a theme that is deeply probed by any means but it was nice to see it pop up.

For the most part the characters here are cardboard cut-outs and the cities of Uruk and Kish are Potemkin villages. Peel doesn't manage to make these places come to life. Uruk was the metropolis of its day yet the book is unable to convey this and sticks to a couple buildings and various hallways just like the classic series did. Indeed, most of Timewyrm: Genesys comes across like a very generic story from the 1970s. About the only things here that would have felt out of place in the TV show was Ace using a wee bit of profanity and an adolescent priestess named En-Gula wandering around in a profound state of undress.

The story ends with the consciousness of the Timewyrm escaping into the TARDIS circuitry which is ejected by The Doctor. Unfortunately for him, the Timewyrm melds with the circuitry and takes on the ability to travel in time and space.

While Timewyrm: Genesys was not a good start to the NAs, Timewyrm: Exodus improved matters considerably. DW stalwart Terrance Dicks does a nice job of writing the Seventh Doctor and Ace, characters which he never wrote for television.

The TARDIS takes our heroes to London in 1951 but they find that things are not as they were recorded in the history books. Here Hitler won World War II and Britain is something like a Nazi protectorate. Paramilitary Freikorps units roam the streets hassling Jewish merchants and basically acting like they own the place. The Doctor resolves to find out how history was diverted and put it back on the right course.

The Doctor and Ace have a run-in with the Freikorps but manage to bluff their way out of arrest with The Doctor posing as a Nazi official. They then witness a man being stabbed who passes an envelope to The Doctor before plunging into the Thames. They are eventually turned in by an informant and meet one Lieutenant Hemmings who figures into a later book. Hemmings tries to get the travelers to talk and admit they are with the resistance but fails. Instead The Doctor and Ace go free posing once again as a Nazi official and his assistant. Curiously enough, a (the?) TARDIS materializes near him at one point, he enters, and is whisked away.

In order to kickstart the process of getting history back to where it should be, our pair travel back to 1923 where they find Adolf Hitler during the Beer Hall Putsch in Munich. Much to Ace's incredulity, The Doctor saves the future führer. They meet up again in the 1939 of this alternate timeline in Nuremburg and The Doctor becomes an aide to Hitler.

Timewyrm: Exodus is something of a sequel to the Second Doctor television story “The War Games” in that it features the return of The War Chief, a fellow Timelord, who is disguised as Doktor Kriegslieter here. He is out to mess with history yet again. Like The War Chief, the Timewyrm had the same idea but her plans took a turn in the wrong direction when she became trapped inside of Hitler.

Unlike the previous book, the dashing back and forth around Germany and London here is a lot of fun. I mean who doesn't like to see Nazis and their sympathizers being deceived at every turn and imploding? The characterization is a bit thin but Dicks manages to bring Hitler to life well. He's not portrayed as simply being evil incarnate but as a human being with foibles like the rest of us who is extremely evil. That The Doctor aids Hitler brings up a lot of moral questions but, unsurprisingly, the book avoids them. While Dicks may not mine the moral landscape here, he does treat The Doctor's actions with some seriousness. They didn't feel cartoonish and Dicks at least acknowledged the dilemma.

Timewyrm: Exodus may not be a great story but it was genuinely a lot of fun. It had a brisk pace but not too brisk. It was a hoot to read as The Doctor toyed with Adolf Hitler. In addition we had The War Chief's machinations and Dicks kept us guessing about how the Timewyrm fit into things. In the end The Doctor frees her from Hitler's body and sends her off into the Time Vortex.

In Timewyrm: Apocalypse the TARDIS again brings The Doctor and Ace to a new world in pursuit of the Timewyrm. This time it's the planet Kirith. The natives live seemingly perfect – too perfect, perhaps – lives. Their history says that the previous inhabitants destroyed themselves in nuclear war and that they, the current inhabitants, were rescued from a primitive state by the Panjistri and given civilization.

The Doctor and Ace rescue a young man named Raphael who had been pondering his memories of a friend that he supposedly never had. Ace befriends Raphael and they eventually head out on a little adventure to the harbor where they discover a Panjistri genetics lab with a very large and very mean experiment inside. Meanwhile The Doctor is shown some ancient ruins that are, in fact, not particularly ancient. The Panjistri have obviously pulled the wool over the eyes of the Kirithians.

It turns out that Kirith and its inhabitants are merely part of a grand experiment being carried out by the Panjistri who reside on the planet's nearby moon. The Panjistri are led by The Grand Matriarch whose body is inhabited by the Timewyrm and is trying to delay the destruction of the universe as predicted in the prologue of the book which dealt with the mathematicians at Logopolis. Of course her plans are foiled by The Doctor and she is once again banished into the aether.

Timewyrm: Apocalypse just never really clicked with me. Kirithian society was rather bland – just another bunch of “primitives” for The Doctor to enlighten. The Grand Matriarch is something of a badass and had a suitably convoluted stratagem for achieving universal domination but she and the Timewyrm come into the story too late for them to rescue the story from its doldrums.

Timewyrm: Revelation completes the quadrilogy and establishes an identity for the New Adventures that is all its own. The first three novels were essentially souped-up stories from the television series but this novel takes Doctor Who somewhere new. It has an antecedent in The Ultimate Foe but it takes that adventure in The Matrix to a whole new level. Imagine if The Pilgrim's Progress had been written by Philip K. Dick. This is Doctor Who's The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway.

It opens on Gallifrey where a hermit sits underneath a tree tending a flower before moving to the village of Cheldon Bonniface in 1992 and St. Christopher's church. Inside the Reverend Ernest Trelaw converses with two new parishioners, Peter and Emily Hutchings. Oh, and St. Christopher's is inhabited by a spirit, an intelligence named Saul who is familiar with The Doctor. No one there, including Saul, can shake the feeling that The Doctor will arrive soon. And in a Perivale schoolyard, a bully named Chad Boyle has decided that he's had enough of a classmate named Dorothy – our future Ace – and so he kills her by bringing a brick down on her head.

With the introductory material out of the way, the TARDIS lands in Cheldon Bonniface sometime in the middle of the nineteenth century. The Doctor reacquaints himself with his old friend George, an innkeeper, over a game of chess as Ace retires for the night. Her sleep is disturbed when she is attacked by a figure clad in an astronaut suit – I couldn't help but think of “The Impossible Astronaut” here. Ace flees into the woods but soon finds herself on the surface of the Moon. For his part, The Doctor discovers that George is in fact Hemmings from Timewyrm: Exodus whom we last saw entering a TARDIS which immediately dematerialized. Hemmings believes he is in the employ of a Norse god while the astronaut turns out to be Chad Boyle who is intent on stalking Ace. Plus St. Christopher's is brought to the Moon for good measure.

And thus it begins.

I will forgo any more plot synopsis and instead focus on author Paul Cornell's writing. The rest of the book only gets more surreal and I really appreciated the bizarre tale he wove here. There is a scene early on in the TARDIS which foreshadows the rest of the story. In it The Doctor enters the room with a couple of mugs of hot cocoa and he converses with Ace about dreams. Our Time Lord is very pensive and the scene has a patina of melancholy that gives it a fragile beauty. There's no running down corridors here but instead it just has a mood that I can relate to.

As Ace evades the murderous intent of her childhood nemesis, The Doctor is forced to confront his conscience in the form of his previous incarnations. If you think the new series pioneered The Doctor having any sense of guilt or affection for his companions, think again because it's all in here. At one point The Doctor concludes that the only way to make things right is to have Ace die but he relents and resolves to find another way as killing her, even for the greater good, is simply not the right thing to do. He cannot let that happen after having seen the fates of Adric, Sara, and Katarina. The Doctor dealing with pangs of guilt provides a relatable emotional core for the story around which the surreal action can take place.

On a stylistic note, I really like the presence of St. Christopher's and its inhabitants on the moon. They make for something akin to a Greek chorus. Scenes there occasionally heighten the tension but also provide some respite from the action, the emotional turmoil, and the surreality of the main story. They provide welcome breaks allowing the reader to contemplate the tale and add their own little brand of weirdness into the mix.

All in all the Timewyrm saga is a mixed bag. I am hoping that the New Adventures continue in the vein of Revelation which delves into The Doctor's psyche, his relationships with his companions, and throws in a surreal tale to boot. These elements make for a far more interesting “adult” vision of Doctor Who than merely adding some nudity and profanity.

Next up is the Cat's Cradle trilogy.

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|| Palmer, 6:25 PM

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