Fearful Symmetries

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21 September, 2013

Regrets, I've Had a Few - Doctor Who: Nightshade




Nightshade is the first Virgin New Adventure to not be a part of a mini-series. No Timewyrm and no silver cat. Instead Mark Gatiss gives us a straight-ahead stand-alone episode. Fans of the Nu Who will know Gatiss as having starred as Professor Lazarus in “The Lazarus Experiment” and Gantok in “The Wedding of River Song”. In addition, he has penned several Nu Who episodes as well as having written various Doctor Who audio dramas. Having become a fan at as kid, he must be living the DW fan dream.

The book's prologue features the First Doctor, described as having “piercing eyes” and a “haughty mouth”, stealthily detaching himself from a group of Time Lords and stealing a TARDIS. Although this was shown in last season's finale, I believe that this is the first time our beloved hero's departure from Gallifrey was ever described or portrayed.

The action then moves to the town of Crook Marsham in 1968 where Jack Prudhoe is drowning his uxorial sorrows down at the pub. While nursing his drink, he notices a figure in red outside in the rain. He looks closer and sees that it's his wife but as a young woman. Back in the days when they were happy. Jack rushes after her but meets an untimely demise out on the moors. Over at the Crook Marsham retirement home actor Edmund Trevithick, best known for his role as Nightshade (Americans - think Carl Kolchak, the Night Stalker), is living out his remaining years. One night as he lay dreaming, he is awoken as the windows of his room are blown out and a sinister voice whispers, “Nightshade...Nightshade...”

Amidst these strange happenings, the TARDIS materializes. Ace is in a good mood but The Doctor isn't. The torpor of the previous novel, Cat's Cradle: Witch Mark, has reemerged. He is irritable and listless. He scolds Ace in an unusual outburst when she tries on grey tunic with a Coal Hill School badge and demands she take it off. (That would be the school uniform of his granddaughter, Susan.) And so, when they head out into the town, Ace heads to the local pub and The Doctor seeks some quiet and solace at the local church and monastery.

Ace heads into the same pub frequented by Jack Prudhoe. Ace she whiles away the time, Vijay Degun, an assistant at the local radio telescope pops in and enquires about using the phone as the lines at the telescope are out. Oddly enough, the pub's phone is dead too. Intrigued, Ace hitches a ride in the trunk of Vijay's car. For his part, The Doctor engages the abbot who offers him a book with some history of Crook Marsham. During the English Civil War, the town's castle was destroyed after an eldritch light burst through its wall scaring the bejeezus out of Loyalist and Roundhead alike. The castle is long gone and the site was merely a vantage point for admiring the area's natural beauty until the radio telescope was erected upon it.

Ace finds that things at the telescope are a bit hectic. They are getting enormous energy readings that are pushing needles into the red but none of the scientists can figure out what this energy is nor exactly where it's coming from. Back in town, Betty Yeadon is drawing a bath when the corpse of her brother Alf, who was killed in the Great War, slowly emerges from the tub...

Nightshade is classic Doctor Who. More people die after confronting a memory from their past and eventually the main characters hole themselves up in the telescope facility giving us a tried and true base under siege story. That the baddie lurks in the earth and messes with those on the surface reminded me of the great Hammer film Five Million Years to Earth.

While a good sci-fi horror story, Nightshade does some nice work thematically as well. Gatiss does a nice job of drawing characters who are in some way haunted by their past and thereby make good prey for the presence lurking underneath the soil. And it's not just the townspeople who are confronted by their pasts but also The Doctor who meets an apparition of Susan. The book may be written in a style that younger DW fans can handle, but the notion of reflection upon one's past and how the past can influence the present is a theme that only adults can truly appreciate. Nightshade may not be up there with Greek tragedy as commentary on the human condition but it does offer some grist for the mill.

In Cat's Cradle: Witch Mark The Doctor was fed up with always having to be the hero. Here that trend continues but is marked by a more pensive Time Lord. The classic TV series didn't find The Doctor engaging in much omphaloskepsis but here we find him contemplating his past on a personal level and being forced to confront it. Ace doesn't contrast with the TV very much. She is her usual spunky self rallying the troops and enthusiastically confronting evil. I suppose that she does come across as being a bit more independent than she did on TV. While she continues to look to The Doctor for answers to questions beyond her ken, she is very proactive and does a lot more on her own. “Remembrance of the Daleks” came to mind as Ace finds herself attracted to Robin Yeadon, Betty's son, just as she had a crush on Mike Smith in that TV story. Nightshade also harkened back to “Remembrance” with the racism of Professor Hawthorne who works at the telescope. In the TV show the issue was brought up by a sign in a boarding house whereas here Hawthorne becomes very outspoken in his dislike of non-whites and Vijay in particular.

For the most part, Nightshade revels in the conventions of Doctor Who and, insofar as these go, it's a fun stab at horror. But it also builds upon elements of the classic show incrementally, especially with regards to Ace. The big change is in the portrayal of The Doctor. He isn't just a crusader for good that can make snap judgments on the fates of millions, but he is also an individual that must deal with his past on a personal level. Here he seems to feel regret at how his relationship with Susan turned out.

What puts Nightshade a cut above the average DW story is that Gatiss not only gives us a dark, rainy, and isolated Crook Marsham as the setting for a creepy tale of horror, but also characters whose hearts are like that with shadows casting a pall over them. I suspect that this more troubled, introspective Doctor will continue to be explored in the New Adventures.

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|| Palmer, 8:06 AM

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