Friday, December 23, 2011

Timewyrm: Exodus

To a generation of Doctor Who fans, Terrance Dicks is always going to be "Uncle Terry", the man who introduced us all to the delights of reading with his seemingly-endless numbers of Doctor Who novelisations and his sprightly scripts from 'The War Games' on up through 'State of Decay'. Even today, he still writes light, friendly, quick reads for the new Doctor Who series, simple (but entertaining) tales like 'Revenge of the Judoon'. If there is a single person who represents the notion of Doctor Who as a family-friendly series for intelligent children as well as adults, Terrance Dicks would have to be it.

All of which makes 'Timewyrm: Exodus' even more of a surprise. Nobody'd ever asked Terrance Dicks to write a Doctor Who novel this ambitious before, and nobody ever would again; after this, he started relying more on his party-pieces, delivering novels that shamelessly pandered to his old fans (while being just good enough to get away with it.) Here, though, he's deliciously cynical, delivering us a brutally amoral novel in which not only do we get the first appearance of the Nazis in Doctor Who (the only previous WWII era story, 'The Curse of Fenric', was set well behind the lines and featured treacherous Russians as its human villains), but we get a story in which the Doctor actually sides with the Nazis and becomes Hitler's best friend. All in the service of getting him to relent at Dunkirk and ensure the British victory, of course, but we'd never seen the Doctor acting as such a callous manipulator, even in his darkest moments on TV.

The "What if the Nazis won World War II?" plot is hoary and old-fashioned to modern audiences (and even to the audiences of 1991), but in Britain, it wasn't just a hypothetical gimmick. It was something they spent several years considering as a real possibility, even a probability, and it shows in this novel. The 1951 of Occupied Britain feels "real" in a way that Peel's genuine Uruk didn't, with casual brutality on open display. (The sequence where the Doctor realizes he's abusing his borrowed power in the same way as the Nazis he's condemning is a subtle, but omnipresent theme...for all that the Doctor wants to believe himself better, he's fully capable of being corrupted by the thrill of other people doing whatever you tell them to do.)

And of course, the whole thing moves along on breezy prose that never fails to capture the attention. Dicks' greatest gift is that he's so bloody readable; even when he's glossing over the story's weak points or jumping through necessary narrative hoops, he does so with a metaphorical wink and smile that says, "Just trust me on this one, okay?" Like the stage magician who covers his lack of skill with superior patter, Dicks gets you to go along with even the cheesiest of tricks.

'Timewyrm: Exodus' may be the work of an old dog doing old tricks, but even the grumpiest of fans would have to admit that he does them well.

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