Fearful Symmetries

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28 September, 2013

Love Hurts - Doctor Who: Love and War



Paul Cornell's Love and War has a very good reputation amongst Doctor Who fans. Indeed, it is just short of legendary and is generally considered one of the high points of the entire Virgin New Adventures series. Ergo I was very keen on digging into the novel. Once I was done I wished that I had never read about the NSAs. I knew too much about the story from having read DW forums and blogs. I can only imagine what it would have been like to have devoured this book upon its publication in 1992 oblivious to its dramatic revelations and unaware of the reputation it would gain in the years to come.

There will be spoilers in this post so anyone wishing to preserve a little bit of the bliss of ignorance would do well to leave now. I would also admonish folks who are contemplating making their way through the NSAs to, not only avoid my reviews, but to also steer clear of any chatter of them on the Internet. I don't mean to sound melodramatic here but, having read this book knowing a fair amount of what gives it its reputation, I feel that its impact was dulled a bit; like watching a film after seeing a trailer that gave away too much. You have been warned.

Love and War is a rather dark tale. It begins with Ace attending the funeral of her friend Julian and recalling a particular drive out in the country they took together. This tender, if bittersweet, moment gives way to the fate of a couple patrol ships in the far future on the look out for Daleks when they are attacked by one of the more eerie creations seen in DW, a giant sphere made of dead flesh and skin.

The Doctor and Ace land on the planet Heaven, which is rather bucolic until you find out that it's a necropolis. Humans and Draconians had been fighting for ages and the planet was declared a neutral zone where the war dead could be buried and their remains rest peace. The Timelord is keen on heading to the library as he wants to get his hands on a copy of The Papers of Felsecar. For her part, Ace is intrigued by a band of space hippies who wouldn't have been out of place at a Grateful Dead concert. They are gathered in a marketplace of Joycetown selling wares and making music. Our young companion finds herself smitten with one of them, a man named Jan.

Also on Heaven is Professor Bernice Summerfield who is digging up the ruins left behind by the original inhabitants. Curiously enough, neither she nor anyone else have ever found any remains of the Heavenites themselves. Bernice is a woman of 30 and, in addition to being in possession of a sharp tongue, she can also ride horse, acquit herself well in swordplay, and loves a stiff drink.

But all is not well on Heaven as we learn early on when a priest of the Church of the Vacuum, Phaedrus, sacrifices his friend Piers. Eldritch fibers are nourished by his blood and make their way into the gaping wound. In almost no time Piers' body is transformed into a Hoothi, a large fungoid creature covered in more of those filaments and writhing tentacles to boot. The Hoothi have tremendous psychic powers and are like the Borg in that they are a gestalt race. And if you thought that Sawyer from LOST was well-versed in the long game, well, he's got nothing on the Hoothi who are looking at the end game of a plan that has been in motion for a thousand millennia.

One of the elements that gives Love and War its reputation is that The Doctor keeps his cards close to his chest and is highly manipulative. He lets on what he knows in spurts and fits and just when you think he has finally shared everything, you find out that he still had a plan simmering on the back burner. Here, things get very bad as the Hoothi long game nears fruition. Filaments are infecting people left and right and even the dead, of which there are many, are reanimated by them and the Hoothi's vast powers. The Doctor devises a plan which involves sacrificing Jan to the Hoothi to get him aboard their necro-dirigible and appealing to his conscience so that he activates his superpower (summoning flame) to take out the mothership a la the Hindenburg.

This doesn't go down well with Ace who had fallen in love with Jan. She is furious with The Doctor and cannot even face him. When he approaches her, she threatens him. Cornell portrays her anger very well. It was truly sad and disturbing to read the passages showing how their relationship – the one I've enjoyed for literally decades – had been split in two. Ace can longer bear to be in his presence and so leaves The Doctor. You can read about how the TV show's writers had planned to have Ace leave had the show not been canceled and it was a million miles away from the grand betrayal here.

Considering all I've read about the NSAs, including this book, and how The Doctor becomes darker, more manipulative, and so on, these events, while shocking, didn't feel new. The Doctor did much the same thing on TV in “The Curse of Fenric”. In that story he forces Ace to confront her past and engages an enemy who has its own long game. He hurts Ace with insults to get her to lose faith in him to defeat Fenric. Now, that's not the same as sending Jan off to die but it's manipulation in both cases. It's a difference of degree, not kind.

Bernice ends up becoming The Doctor's new companion. It's a nice change. Bernice is not a teenage girl and has a different perspective on life. She is a woman of action and can hold her own in verbal sparring matches with the Timelord. I look forward to reading how she develops and fits into the adventures.

Love and War certainly lived up to its reputation. Quite aside from The Doctor and Ace's friendship being torn asunder, it is notable for delving into Ace's character. There's a lot of scheming to be done so The Doctor is busy concealing that and so we get a peek into Ace's heart. She falls for Jan, even if it feels more like a teenage crush than true love. While the whole love at first sight thing felt forced, I thought that Cornell handled it well from then on. I thought he captured the confusion surrounding teenage attraction.

Relationships set this book apart from the TV show. In addition to Ace's crush, Jan is also in love with a fellow space hippie named Roisa who is in turn in love with the group's priestess, Maire. So you've got Ace's crush, polygamy, and a homosexual relationship and, while this is an action/adventure tale at heart, all of these relationships and their attendant emotional complications give depth to the story. The agonies seem genuine even if the relationships aren't fully realized on the page.

An aspect of the story found interesting was how Cornell foreshadowed the actions of our two heroes. In Ace's case, her relationship with Julian prefigured the one she had with Jan. For The Doctor this came in an odd passage in the guise of one of Ace's dream in which he meets Death again, the first time having been in Cornell's previous NSA Timewyrm: Revelation. Here Death accuses the Seventh Doctor of having “killed” the Sixth Doctor by maneuvering the TARDIS into the Rani's tractor beam (in the TV story “Time and the Rani” - the first to feature the Seventh Doctor. This will be contradicted in 2005's Spiral Scratch.) so that he may regenerate and become Time's Champion while Sixie becomes the Valeyard. (This the first story to refer to The Doctor as Time's Champion.) The Doctor offers his life for Ace's, saying that he'd be good company for the Eternals. I guess this Death is an Eternal, a race we first met on TV in “Enlightenment” with the Fifth Doctor. Unfortunately for Jan, Death rejects The Doctor's offer and asks if he has a suitable replacement. Presumably all of this myth-making will be relevant in future stories.

In addition to all of the tweaking of established Doctor Who conventions, Love and War also succeeds because of Cornell's writing. On one hand this is a fairly standard DW story. It has the feel of a Fourth Doctor horror story and has a base under siege segment. We are strung along as to the nature of the bad guys and their stratagem while we are also kept in the dark as The Doctor schemes away. This is the war part of the title and Cornell contrasts this with love. There are the romantic entanglements as described above but there is also Ace's love for Julian and the Platonic love that she and The Doctor feel for one another. Cornell deftly wove these competing yet complementary strands together for an utterly engaging adventure with great emotional resonance.

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|| Palmer, 7:30 PM

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