Fearful Symmetries

Witness a machine turn coffee into pointless ramblings...

02 September, 2013

The New Adventures Continue: Cat's Cradle Trilogy

Doctor Who's New Adventures began with the Timewyrm quadrilogy and continued with the Cat's Cradle trilogy. The three stories here are linked much more loosely than the previous series with only a silver cat being the common thread.

Cat's Cradle: Time's Crucible gets things going. It was written by Marc Platt who also wrote “Ghost Light”, one of my favorite stories from the television series. That episode began life as a much different story which involved The Doctor returning home to Gallifrey. The story was radically changed for television although Platt would later adapt his original idea into Lungbarrow, the fin*-al New Series adventure, still five years down the road.

But Platt didn't let go of his affinity for Gallifrey and threw some history of the Time Lords' planet into this novel. We get a glimpse of ancient Gallifrey as its Enlightenment is just beginning. The Pythia rules with an iron fist, abetted by her gift of second sight. But her days are numbered as Rassilon and his cohorts are looking to overturn the hegemony of faith and superstition and replace it with an ideal of reason and science. The Gallifreyans are not yet Time Lords but Rassilon has begun the process of mastering the fourth dimension. A proto-TARDIS has been constructed and is ready for its first mission.

Meanwhile The Doctor and Ace are enjoying lunch in England when reality suddenly begins to twist and contort around them. A mysterious silver cat appears and lures them back into the TARDIS where an alien creature of some kind has breached the ship's defenses and lies between the inner and outer doors. The Doctor runs off into the interior of the TARDIS in an attempt to expel the intruder but his plan goes awry when the TARDIS collides with the Gallifreyans first time ship, the Time Scaphe.

Ace finds herself in a city of eldritch buildings that are abandoned. She runs into what turns out to be the crew of the Time Scaphe. One of the them, Vael, is arguing with the rest. Vael has betrayed his fellow Chronauts and pledged his allegiance with The Process, a large slug-like creature with a mouth full of vicious-looking teeth at one end that curls up and rolls around, leaving a trail of slime wherever it may roam. The Process has enslaved the Chronauts and has them seeking out a stolen future.

For his part, The Doctor is nowhere to be found and Ace sets out to find him. She runs into a teenage boy named Shonnzi who communicates with The Doctor in his dreams. Ace also discovers that the realm she is in is bordered by other duplicate realms which are offset in time. And so, while the Chronauts she first met are older and have forgotten who they are and where they came from, there are younger versions who have just arrived. It turns out that the landscape around everyone is the TARDIS split asunder and that silver cat is a corporeal form of its warning system.

Platt has a myriad of good ideas here but the story just doesn't gel. I really enjoyed the parts of the story on ancient Gallifrey. It was nice to get a view of The Doctor's homeworld that wasn't a narrow view of a stodgy and aristocratic hierarchy. Plus we witness the ascent of Rasillon. Unfortunately the rest of the book is a mess. For one thing, the Process is a rather bland villain. It, well they, actually, as there are two of them – the same being from different times – don't do much beyond roam around leaving slime trails and mindlessly yelling about the necessity of finding the future. They are petty tyrants instead of either complicated, fully-realized actors or wonderfully diabolical bad guys who chew the scenery like there's no tomorrow. And while I loved the notion of multiple iterations of a city all existing in different time streams yet physically abutting one another is a very neat idea, as is multiple groups of the same people being displaced in time, the story just doesn't do anything interesting with these ideas. The interesting elements of the story are relegated to the background while Ace wanders and runs into people who complain and bicker and a bland villain issues threats and blathers on. Cat's Cradle: Time's Crucible is just never able to fully-realize all the wonderful elements that Platt came up with.

Cat's Cradle: Warhead was written by Andrew Cartmel, the show's script editor during the Seventh Doctor era. I think the novel marks the first time Cartmel has produced a Doctor Who story of his own instead of editor those of other writers. The cover is highly reminiscent of that of Iron Maiden's Somewhere in Time which put me in a dystopian, Blade Runner-esque frame of mind. Indeed, the earth of the near future in Warhead is dystopian. Pollution ravages the environment and, instead of the Tyrell Corporation, we have the ominous and powerful Butler Institute.

The book begins with The Doctor laying a trap. He visits Shreela, a science journalist, who lies in hospital dying from the poisons now common in the environment. He asks her to do one last thing before she passes and that is to publish a story that links certain proteins in the blood to telekenesis. In publishing this story, The Doctor hopes to get the head of the Butler Institute, Matthew O'Hara, to make a move.

The Doctor breaks into the offices of the Butler Institute in New (New New?) York to gather information. There he meets Maria, a cleaning woman, who helps him. In a nice, albeit mournful, digression, Cartmel gives us Maria's backstory. She grew up in California where partied as a youth but found her life thrown into chaos after the death of her love, Jerome. She moved to New York but she found her life plans hindered by economic migration laws. Tragically, she would die a prolonged death owing to both the toxic air outside and the poisonous cleaning chemicals she used everyday.

In another tangent, Cartmel has The Doctor meet up with a serial killer named Bobby Prescott who has a bit of information that our hero needs. Again, we get a nice, although very disturbing, digression. Prescott's tale, relating how things used to be better, emphasizes the corrupt nature of the society in which the story takes place. With this information, The Doctor sends Ace on a mission to Turkey where she recovers a drum. Drum as in barrel, not percussion instrument.

Inside the drum is a teenage boy named Vincent who has been embalmed in some kind of chemical cocktail. Vincent has the unique ability to channel the mental energy of others and focus them into a burst of telekinetic power. He too has a role in The Doctor's plan which is to foil the machinations of Matthew O'Hara.

Cat's Cradle: Warhead is an unqualified success. Cartmel constructs a believable dystopian future that sees the characters roaming multiple locations around the world in a way that the television series never could. Yet he also connects his story to the TV show. Shreela is a friend of Ace's that we met in “Survival” and the evil Butler Institute and Matthew O'Hara brought the Third Doctor story “The Green Death” to mind. There are some fun action sequences and a good old fashioned shoot out. But what stands out most is characterization. The Doctor is scheming and manipulating and makes for a nice parallel to O'Hara who is less an embodiment of evil than a man who has lost his moral compass and is using his power for the wrong side. Ace is an action hero here alternately dodging bullets and letting off a few rounds. The real treat is how subsidiary characters like Maria, Prescott, and Vincent are all given backstories. Warhead arguably doesn't twist or stretch the Doctor Who formula but it is a fun story that fleshes out characters who, on television, would have been little more than cardboard cut outs.

The trilogy comes to a close with Cat's Cradle: Witch Mark and see the series venture into fantasy territory.

The TARDIS lands in the Welsh village of Llanfer Ceirog which The Doctor has apparently visited previously as he knows Old Hugh and his wife Janice. All is well and bucolic but, being Doctor Who, the pleasantness can't last for long. And it doesn't. Ace wanders the countryside and finds a mysterious stone circle but is chased away by an ornery Emrys Hughes upon whose land Ace was trespassing. She returns and tells her story to everyone. At first The Doctor is keen on R&R and refuses to investigate but, upon hearing that a village was once located on Hughes' property, he becomes intrigued and has Ace take him to investigate. They arrive at night to find the stone circle populated with lights.

But unexplained lights in the middle of the night are the least mysterious things happening. A bus has crashed on the M40 (not quite sure where this is exactly other than a more populated area not too far away) and no one survives. There are a couple odd things about this tragedy. First is that the only person the police can identify is the driver, Selwyn, who is Emrys Hughes' brother. Secondly, all of the passengers are wearing new clothing, are carrying suitcases full of cash, and some of them have a peculiar birthmark on their necks. Back in Llanfer Ceirog the local veterinarian delivers a foal and notices that the mare has a wound on her forehead. Poking around the hay he discovers a horn. Back at home, he calls a number in an ad asking for people to report any sightings of strange animals. The ad was placed by Inspector Stevens, a paranormal investigator and the laughing stock of Scotland yard who is also investigating the bus crash. Lastly there's a couple of American boys who are hitchhiking around the UK. They wander through the forest surrounding Llanfer Ceirog and find an injured centaur. After reporting what they've found to the local constabulary, the pair are shocked that he merely pours gas on the creature and burns it alive.

The Doctor figures out that the stone circle is actually a teleportation device and he and Ace find themselves whisked off to a land called Tir na n-Óg. It isn't long before they are taken prisoner by a group of humans and taken to their leader. The leader, Dryfid, explains that there is discord in the land now that the sun has disappeared. A delegation had been sent to the home of the god Goibhnie to ask that he restore the sun but it didn't go particularly well. And so they have devised a plan to use the stone circle/transmat device to take them to Earth. Wanting to remain oblivious to the folks on Earth, they have decided to leave the other residents of Tir na n-Óg behind and they are none too pleased. These include unicorns knows as Ceffyl and the Firbolg which are centaurs.

Dryfid refuses to let The Doctor and Ace return to Earth but he does let them seek out Goibhnie who turns out not to be a god after all...

Witch Mark is another fun entry in the New Adventures. Inspector Stevens reminded me of Fox Mulder although the novel pre-dates The X-Files. The storyline that takes place on Earth had the vibe of The Wicker Man though it was inverted a bit as Stevens was not a skeptic. The scenes taking place in Llanfer Ceirog were really classic DW with strange events and weird creatures in a rural village. The adventures in Tir na n-Óg are less successful as the build-up of strange, unexplained events is replaced with expository scenes and action but author Andrew Hunt gets credit for letting the mysteries unfold in their own time. A lot of DW stories reveal everything too soon leaving a large chunk of time with The Doctor and his companions, if they're not imprisoned, running around from dead end to dead end until a window of opportunity presents itself for the final victory. Here the Earthly conundrums give way to one cental mystery, namely that of Goibhnie's identity. In the end, the central problem is wrapped up a bit hastily but there's no denying the fun had along the way.

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|| Palmer, 8:34 PM


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