Friday, January 27, 2012

Cat: Cat's Cradle: Warhead

John: So, should we put on our Black Flag albums to discuss this book? I think I might be able to lay my hands on some Che Guevara T-shirts, if we need them...

Dee: I never owned one. I’m thinking we don’t have enough six-sided dice between us for the Doctor’s stats... and we’re both longtime gamers with more D6es than sense. What I find amusing is that we hadn’t read one another’s blog entries and yet we wrote about almost the exact same things... but I was vaguely disappointed where you were frankly annoyed.

John: I think I’m annoyed because I genuinely believe that Cartmel is a good writer, with the ability to create memorable set pieces...and he’s being completely self-indulgent and delivering a novel that feels like he first wrote it when he was sixteen and then just did a polish job on it. I think he could be so much better than this, and it’s frustrating to me.

Dee: These characters did not need to be Ace and the Doctor. They could have been anyone. The TARDIS doesn’t even figure into it except as a magical transport device... you could substitute “personal teleporter” in there with no problem. Honestly, if this novel didn’t slightly predate Shadowrun I’d think it was a campaign novel like the Dragonlance series.

John: Well, strictly speaking it could be a campaign novel for FASA’s “Doctor Who” RPG, with Cartmel finding out the hard way that he couldn’t use his own Time Lord and companion and had to stick with the Doctor and Ace...but actually, that doesn’t bother me the most. Well, except for the Ace and Justine sequence, which remains to me the single most annoying piece of authorial fiat in the entire printed history of Doctor Who novels. And I’m including the “Sam discusses Creationism” scene in ‘Placebo Effect’. But other than that, it feels more to me like Ace is trying to play the role the Doctor offered her instead of actually being the person she pretends to be. And the Doctor and the TARDIS...well, if you want to actually take this as the middle installment of a trilogy, which is otherwise very difficult, you can assume that they’re both still recuperating from the events of ‘Time’s Crucible’ and the Doctor’s still acting wonky as a result.

If, you know, you wanted to be charitable.

Dee: I just don’t see the character progression for Ace. Since I’ve written the blog entry, I’m trying to figure out the whole thing, and it doesn’t wash at all. Especially the Ace that Cornell set up only two books ago... who saw the Doctor’s compassion in a unique way and found her own. But I ranted about that already. I hadn’t considered the Doctor still being wonky, and that almost makes his behavior make sense, but no. I really didn’t care for him being so obvious about using people as weapons and proud of it. And I didn’t care for his lack of compassion for the dying women. Nope.

John: Yeah, I think that’s far more teenage Cartmel speaking. “Dude, if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem!” Which wouldn’t be such an obnoxious, smug, self-righteous adventure into dickishness if he hadn’t done such a good job writing those characters. It’s less than a chapter, but we know everything we need to know about the life of a woman who would pass almost unremarked in any other novel. But because she didn’t single-handedly take on the bunch of organ-harvesting madmen who were above the law, the Doctor can’t even spare a moment to cheer her dying day. Compared to that, wiping out the Silence is practically sweetness and light.

Dee: I’ll admit that, having had a job cleaning hotel rooms, I feel for her a lot. I think she’s the character I most related to in the entire thing, far more than the environmental pagan-type. Justine annoyed the life out of me.

John: Not to put words into your mouth, but I think she was annoying to you because she was the worst kind of well-meaning pagan stereotype--she’s a teenage eco-terrorist filled with rage against the despoilers of the earth and she wears leather and takes casual drugs and has casual sex...and, um, she’s always right about everything, because Cartmel wants to pretend deep down that he’s an ANARCHIST instead of a middle-class writer who marched for Greenpeace once. Cartmel pumps up the adoration for her to the point where you want to see her get torn apart by wild dogs out of sheer spite.

Oh, and speaking of wild dogs, she’s such a compassionate animal-lover that she abandons her pet in the middle of nowhere without food. And we’re supposed to be proud of her for it?

Dee: And throws rocks at him. I feel for poor Vincent being stuck with her. And I really don’t have a lot else to say about this book, to be honest. It feels so out of place in the series to me, I just can’t get attached.

John: I agree. I think anything more at this point would be piling on. As for feeling for poor Vincent...well, let’s just say that their story’s not done yet and leave it at that for another 28 novels or so. And let’s move on to a novel that’s a lot less well-remembered, a lot less good, but also a lot less frustrating.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Cat's Cradle: Warhead

Four words: Doctor Who does Shadowrun.

I used to play Shadowrun - I have particularly fond memories of Fawn, my shaman - and while I never really got into cyberpunk novels, I know it when I see it. The only thing this is missing is the actual dragons-bursting-through-and-metahumans-evolving. You have young, stupid street samurai, netrunners, arcologies, a dystopian future with vastly poisoned Earth, harvesting of body parts, the US broken up into smaller sections... it's really amazing.

I talk a lot about Ace in this blog, and her characterization bothers me the most. The Doctor, eh, we've seen authors forget the "never cruel" part before. But I don't know how we get from the Ace of Timewyrm: Revelation - or even from the previous book - to this Ace. We have gone from a kid who happens to like blowing stuff up to someone who is perfectly comfortable dealing with Kurdish terrorists in one book, and I don't get it. Characters need to grow and change, but this is ridiculous. Cartmel needed a street samurai to contrast against others characters, and so he stuck Ace in that role. It doesn't progress naturally, and I can't get used to it.

The scene with Justine and Ace doesn't wash, either. Ace has met someone who refers to the Doctor as "Merlin." She's seen demons. The whole Doctor-as-sorcerer thing shouldn't unsettle her at all: she should be able to understand that for some people, that's just their paradigm. After everything that's happened, it's Justine that throws her? Again, I don't get it.

I guess I expected more from someone who actually worked as a script editor for the series. He seems to have willfully, even gleefully disregarded things that happened on his own watch. While I'm all about "Doctor Who doesn't really have a canon," this is a bit too far for me to enjoy.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Cat's Cradle: Warhead

No matter how many times I read this novel, one scene always makes my blood boil. It's a scene that some people adore, the sequence where Ace and Justine debate theology and Justine suggests that the Doctor isn't deceiving her by suggesting he's a sorcerer, he's deceiving Ace by suggesting he's an alien scientist with a time machine. Ace finds herself wracked with doubt, unable to find purchase for her whole worldview...

Except that this is Ace. She met the Doctor on another planet. The previous novel, she actually met other members of the Doctor's species. Four novels ago, she met Hitler. The idea that she'd doubt the Doctor's claims of being an alien time traveler just because snotty teen Justine said so is not just stupid, it's insulting. But even worse, the whole idea that Ace is a skeptic who would tell Justine that there's no such thing as demons is fundamentally unsound. Ace knows there are such things as demons. She stood against Morgaine in the final battle for Arthur's legacy, holding Excalibur within a chalk circle while the Fae Queen summoned the Destroyer. She is not going to tell Justine that magic is garbage, she's going to tell her that she's seen magic and Vincent doesn't have it.

For another author, this scene might be an understandable lapse. It's Doctor Who, after all, and it's hard for every writer to remember every story. But Cartmel helped to create Ace. He was script editor on 'Battlefield'. He has no excuses. For Cartmel to make Ace into a strawman skeptic just so that he can tear her apart for this one scene betrays the fundamental fact about Cartmel: He does not care about coherency. Not narrative coherency, not consistency of characterization. Everything he does is designed to service the aesthetic of the story, with Cartmel setting up one set piece after another with no more than lip service paid to how they actually work together as a story.

Don't get me wrong, that actually can be an effective way to write. (Although it's certainly a better way to script edit...looking back on his time on the series, it's pretty clear that he gave the writers "big moments" like the Cheetah People on horseback or the Neanderthal delivering a copy of the Times to the prisoner in the cell, and relied on his writers to work them into a narrative.) But if you're going to utterly subsume the narrative to the aesthetic and create something that works more as prose poetry than as a plotted novel, the important question becomes: What's the aesthetic?

And the answer is, "An utterly hokey eco-fable so humorless and self-righteous as to almost flip over to 'inadvertently hilarious' but not quite make it, leaving you trapped and utterly loathing every second of it as surely as if you were stuck in an elevator with that annoying guy from your PoliSci class for a weekend." If Ric from 'The Young Ones' were to write a Doctor Who novel, this would be it. It could not feel more like it was written by a smug sixteen year old who thought that they learned all the answers to humanity's problems from old Dead Kennedys albums if it actually came with an 'Eat the Rich' T shirt.

In 'Warhead', humanity's problems with pollution don't stem from neglect, they're the work of a cabal of Secret Rich People who control all humanity and plan to turn themselves into robots. The kids are all video-game addicted psychopaths who love their violent TV. Every problem a dystopia might have (or rather, might have had in 1985...this book was published in 1992 and already felt like it was out of date...) is whipped up into a shrieking froth of panic and despair just so that the Doctor can stop it by killing a rich guy. That's honestly the whole of the story.

Which has two major flaws. One, the Doctor is portrayed as a ruthless murderer with a flair for the melodramatic. Two, the entire slide of the human race into poverty, amorality and slow death by pollution and eco-catastrophe can be halted solely by killing one rich guy. I'm honestly not sure which of those two things drags the novel down more.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Chat: Cat's Cradle: Time's Crucible

John: I think this might be the first one where we have very different opinions on the book. I really got into the whole Gothic atmosphere thing, and you...?

Dee: It’s not so much that I didn’t get into it. It’s that I never really got a handle on how the place looked, so for me it was a lot of running through corridors. It was just the corridors clearly had open tops. Note that this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but I think I missed out on a lot of the atmosphere. It would have been worse, I think, had I not seen “The Doctor’s Wife,” because that was some really creepy running and I think I transferred some of that feeling of doing the same thing over and over and over and time being messed around into the book. So thank you again, Neil Gaiman and team, because I think it may have actually saved the book.

John: Interesting that you should bring up “The Doctor’s Wife”, because both those stories feature the TARDIS as more than just a device to get the Doctor into the story. But while Gaiman’s story was about making the TARDIS relatable, putting it into terms that the Doctor (and the audience) could understand for a brief while, this one was about making you understand how genuinely alien it really is. It’s not just a spaceship mixed with a magic wardrobe, it’s an environment all to itself. And a dangerous one, too. It’s an idea the series has kind of been working towards since ‘Logopolis’, but I think this is its furthest extension.

Dee: Oh yeah. I’ve always felt the TARDIS’s dimensions had a downside, but by and large it’s safe... but that’s because it likes its people. (And I thought that even before Gaiman gave it words.) Here, the wounded TARDIS is angry and hurt and needs help, darnit, and the Doctor can’t...quite... manage it. And Ace is trying, but she’s only human really.

The thing I really liked about the book was the fact that just about everyone was a jerk. That’s hard to do well! You want the Phazels to get a grip, you want the kid to grow the hell up really, you want Ace to clock everyone one and fix it, and you really want someone to lay out Vael for a good long while. And I don’t like the Doctor in this book. He’s still a hero, but good grief, he is hard to like at all.

John: I think he’s hard to like because his mind is being affected. Not to spoil, but the idea introduced here that the Doctor’s in a sort of symbiotic relationship with his timeship, and that things that make the TARDIS go wrong also make the Doctor go wrong, is going to be a feature for a while. In fact, on and off, it’s going to be a feature for the rest of the series. The Doctor in the novels is far more “at one” with the TARDIS than any before or after. (At least, I think “after”...can you think of that being used in the new series at all?)

Dee: No, I can’t. In fact, I think from Nine on he’s deliberately divorced himself from it. And I agree with you about the cause, no mistake. But it’s still enough to make you say “AUGH!” and want to coredump everything into his brain. He can take it, he’s a telepath!

John: From 2005 on, he’s a telepath. Back in the 90s, it was pretty much agreed that the Time Lords gave up their telepathy as part of the same process that made them Time Lords, which is why the Phazels are all uber-telepathic and the Doctor doesn’t do it that much. They talk about people being “Individuals”; the suggestion is that they’re people who can block out the telepathic crowdsourcing and think for themselves. And they, by implication, are the people who wound up forging the new Gallifreyan society. this where we want to talk about the Ancient Gallifrey stuff?

Dee: On the one hand yes. On the other... Oh, do we have to?

Just kidding, because yes, we do. The Cartmel Masterplan, the Looms, Cousins, the inability of Time Lords to bear children... yeah, it’s all here. All of these things that make the Doctor’s culture really alien, instead of being glorified, well, Helleno-Romans who live a very long time. I love it so much.

John: And we’re never going to get this much of it at once, ever again. I really can’t describe the impact of this at the time; it was like we were finally being given all these secrets that were considered to be totally off-limits for Doctor Who. Stories about Ancient Gallifrey were as taboo as pre-Unearthly Child stories...which, of course, Platt does as well. And as I said in my review, what we get really feels like it’s interesting for its own sake, and not just because it’s the past of the Doctor’s homeworld. Little touches, like the “junk thoughts” spread by salesmen, or the Book of Future Histories (and I love the Doctor’s little line about how it became a lot less important once it stopped being a book of prophecies and started just being a book of history...)

Actually, I’ll just pause here to say that I loved the confrontation between the Doctor and the Pythia. That scene genuinely crackles with tension, because both of those characters have been established so well as dominant figures in their own right. I think that might be the best scene in the book for me.

Dee: For me, it’s the moment when Ace realizes the Doctor is not “with it” and she’s going to have to wing it. It’s so easy for us now to think that’s not unusual, thanks to Paul Cornell and the Eighth Doctor in the movie. But it’s clearly unsettling for Ace, and she’s still not entirely over the events of the previous novel. For her to come back so strongly and compassionately is awesome.

John: Oh, this is definitely a novel for Ace-lovers. She takes center-stage for almost the whole book, having to cope in a totally alien environment with no Doctor, no TARDIS, and no explosives to speak of, and she does wonderfully. It reminds you that she was coping pretty well with being stranded in space-time before she even met the Doctor and his magical translator and handy gizmos. You can tell this was written by one of the guiding lights of her time on the series in a way that, say, ‘Timewyrm: Exodus’ clearly wasn’t.

Dee: Ace needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle, and Shonnzi clearly wasn’t the one for her. But I loved the way that was handled. “Nope, sorry, we need him, can’t have him traveling around with you...” and we don’t have to get into the paradoxes and so on. And we don’t have to worry about a second Adric, which is what he would have been within about three novels.

John: It’s interesting you mention that; it’s almost a running theme, them trying to give Ace a love interest and her more or less saying, “Uh-huh, you’re cute, but I’m not really interested in anything long-term.” Something to keep in mind as we move along through the books, I think. Ace really is the anti-companion in a lot of ways--probably because the books are being written by people who are aware of the show’s conventions, so they’re constantly kicking back at them. All the New Adventures companions are people who wouldn’t be companions on the TV show. (Except maybe Chris, who’s a template for Jack. But I’m getting ahead of things...)

Dee: Yes, but what I want to get at here is that they don’t want to redo some things they’d done with other characters as well. It’s not just Ace. It’s the avoiding of an Adric, it’s the inverting of the TARDIS as a place of total safety which we had in the first three books and Cornell chipped away at. And I don’t think it’s just kicking back at conventions. I think it’s the idea of expanding on what might have already been there... this harking back in a way to a First Doctor story, for instance, in that the TARDIS is trying to get things across in a much more definite way than later stories.

John: I think those two things go together. An awareness of the program’s traditions means deliberate subversion of them, because that’s a key element in drama and comedy--you set up the audience to think one thing, and then surprise them for either dramatic or comic effect. But it also means a respect for them, so you get a story that expands and elaborates on the idea of the TARDIS as an alien environment that isn’t necessarily “safe”. There was a planned story back in the 80s that involved the TARDIS landing inside itself that I think Platt must have been inspired by, and as I mentioned, ‘Logopolis’ features a scene where two TARDISes land inside each other and the recursive topography of the ship becomes menacing. (That’s also where the Cloiser Bell was first used. I keep picturing the bells in the City as being weirdly remixed versions of the Cloister Bell...) All of these things show that Platt wants to build on what came before even as he refuses to give you what you expect.

And on that note, we’re off to Platt’s old boss, and a story that definitely subverts what you’d expect from a Doctor Who story. Not always to its benefit...

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Cat's Cradle: Time's Crucible

Where oh where to begin with this one? How about the fact that it takes a lot of guts to set a novel in ancient Gallifrey, during Rassilon's time. There's not a lot to go on from the series there. Then again, when has Doctor Who ever seriously cared about continuity? (Note that I don't say "Doctor Who fandom" there. The fandom has segments that care very very much about it. The series/audios/novels seems to care much less than its fans do.) I believe this is the first time we hear anything at all about how Time Lords are made, not bred, and the levels of creepy that have been the Time Lords throughout history.

Weird and occasionally creepy as the Doctor is (and he is, I have no illusions about that), he is a kind and gentle soul compared to his fellow Time Lords. In this book, we get to find out just how true that is. Even the good guys in this book have issues. The villains are downright execrable. It's hard to find characters to root for in this book, except for Ace and a Time Lord teenager, and even Ace thinks he's annoying. I know we're supposed to want to punch the character of Vael in the teeth, but I think the author may have accomplished this a bit too effectively!

I do like the concept of the Processes. in a way. Evil they are, but they make a strange kind of sense. It helped me to think of them as overgrown, time-traveling bookworms. I think the author could have checked a thesaurus for synonyms for "slime," but that's a nitpick. I can believe that in the Whoniverse there are icky, gunky, gelatin-covered, time-traveling, bitchy, evil intellivores. Sure, why not? It works for me!

The City worked less well. I get that it was supposed to be confusing, but I had a hard time visualizing what it actually looked like. I settled for "big ruin with weird-colored sky." I could never get the feeling for how it was laid out in any way, though, so the buildup to the ending may not have been as effective for me.

One thing that was effective for me was the telepathy. I have always had a weakness for it in stories, and the idea of a planet with no privacy and constant noise was absolutely perfectly realized and made sense. Ditto the reaction of the Scaphe crew to losing that sense. One of the strengths of this novel is that the characters are well-drawn. I may not have cared for the villains, but their motivations were a bit more than generic moustache-twirling. That's worth a lot, especially when, as I said, so many were unlikeable.

Ace is very strong here. She's resourceful and while she does keep wishing for explosives, she has good reason to do so. It's very clear why she's a Companion here; she serves as conscience and backup mind and muscle for the Doctor before he even really realizes he needs it. I liked her. The fragment of potential romance between her and the Time Lord teen is handled delicately for a change, and the reason it can't go anywhere is perfectly handled.

This isn't my favorite novel so far, but it's a good effort.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Cat's Cradle: Time's Crucible

Do I even need to mention that Marc Platt has a flair for the Gothic? For all that this book is ostensibly a science-fiction novel that involves two timeships colliding and forming a tangle of paradoxes, in all practical terms it's set in a baroque Gothic castle straight out of Gormenghast. Ghosts of people who haven't died yet wander through the novel, strange omens and portents abound, and Gallifrey--Gallifrey, of all places!--is run by a mad soothsayer who curses the planet to eternal sterility. It's more Gothic than 'Ghost Light', and that's saying something.

And as with 'Ghost Light', Platt's previous Doctor Who story, it's really more of a fugue (in the musical sense) than a narrative in the traditional sense. The concept of time being tangled, of space and time being intermingled in strange and disturbing ways, is introduced early and then recapitulated in any number of different ways. Ace finds the same bicycle she's going to pick up in another part of the City, the Pilots' brutal overseers turn out to be their future selves, the Process bickers entertainingly with its older and wiser self in what has to be the most amusingly catty dialogue ever recorded between two dim-witted leeches. The plot almost doesn't matter; what's important is the atmosphere.

Which does mean that it can get to be a bit much, at novel length. The Ancient Gallifrey scenes, which are probably what the book is best remembered for, serve to break up the monotony of the gray and lifeless City when things get to be too oppressive even for a novel designed to be something you inhabit more than read. And they do have some good stuff; the Gallifrey that Platt imagines somehow feels right, a strangely organic outgrowth of the material we've already seen that would actually be interesting even if it weren't the distant past of the Doctor's homeworld. Far too many writers assume that a standard sci-fi trope (aliens invading, evil rulers, traitors to the throne) will somehow be magically made interesting if they add the words, "...on Gallifrey!" at the end. Platt gives us a world that we want to read more about, but never gives us too much. It's no surprise that he was finally selected to tell the closest we'll ever get to the origin story of the Doctor.

Like the best horror stories (and what is a Gothic but the horror story's ancestor?) this lives or dies based on whether the reader can transport themselves into the setting. If you feel the oppressive gloom of the City, if you taste the dry and deadened dust on your lips and picture the twisted towers, you will love this one. If you don't, I suspect it comes off as a brutally dull experience. But "suspect" is the operative word, because this is one of the Doctor Who novels I love.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Chat: Timewyrm: Revelation

John: I know it’s totally predictable to say this, but I really do feel like this is where the New Adventures actually starts. The previous three books have been Doctor Who books, and they were in the New Adventures line, but...well, coming at this from the perspective of someone who’s read all these before, they don’t feel like they belong in the line in terms of style. This one does.

Dee: It really does feel much different than the previous books. I found myself smiling while reading it, trying to visualize the scene and not always able to do so. The boardwalk sequences showed a lot of the differences between the characters; I loved Ace embracing the rose so hard and without reservation. It brought to mind T.S. Eliot poetry, “Prufrock” and “Four Quartets” specifically. And that’s awesome, no other way to put it.

John: It’s very consciously poetic, no question. I think that Cornell is almost defiantly literary in this one; the opening of the book is like throwing down a gauntlet. “Yes, I’m starting a Doctor Who book with a quote from Oscar Wilde. Anyone have a problem with that?” It treads the line of ‘purple’ at times, but Cornell’s going to get better at that later. The main thing he does here, I think, is establish a house style for the series, and establish that the house style is going to really strive to be mature.

Dee: And occasionally dense. The one non-religious teeny quibble I think I have with the book is that it does take multiple reads. That might be a bit off-putting for someone who likes the Target style. Obviously, for a pair of former literature majors, that’s not such a huge deal. And I certainly prefer it this way to the other way around! Give me characterization and decent prose any day!

John: I think of it more as rewarding than requiring multiple reads. The basic thrust of the plot is pretty simple: The Timewyrm is hidden inside the Doctor’s mind and is using his own guilt against him, because deep down he knows he’s become too ruthless and wants to punish himself. Ace saves him by restoring his conscience, allowing him to find another solution besides destroying the Timewyrm. (Although honestly, I think that Cornell comes back to this later and realizes it’s not necessarily as simple as all that. I don’t think it’s as easy as “The Doctor lost his way and needs to be nicer,” because I don’t think that the Doctor is that simple of a character.)

Dee: I liked the role Five played in this work, too. And his comment to Ace was priceless. I think that Five has been regarded as a weak Doctor, and good lord Paul Cornell clearly disagrees! And speaking of non-simple characters who appear simple, how about Saul! I want to talk to that one, for sure.

John: Okay, let’s. Because you do keep mentioning a problem with the book’s religious angle, and I’ll admit I come from a background that renders issues like that a lot less “visible” to me than to you. I thought Saul was an interesting character, a sentience formed through nothing more than the focus of human belief, and one who (quite appropriately, in a novel that is very “Christmassy”) was co-opted into the Christian religious structure while not necessarily being the religious figure some believe him to be. Was that the issue you had, or was it something else?

Dee: It wasn’t that he was co-opted into the Christian religious structure, it was that the book seemed to feel that *of course* he would convert to Christianity, as if there wasn’t any other logical path. It was the certainty of it... I almost want to call it smug, except there’s no amount of malice to it. He wasn’t co-opted. He converted. And I wanted him to be bigger than that, to be more ecumenical, and I felt like that was the one place where Cornell’s own belief structure got in the way of making an interesting character even deeper. It wasn’t a sense of wrong so much as how much more interesting it could have been. I love the thought of the conversations between the vicar and the sentience, but I disliked the sense of “duh!” that the story had. It’s a personal quibble and most people, as you said, aren’t going to come at it from that point of view... but to me, there is no “duh!” to it.

John: Fair enough; I got, as I said, more of a sense that he was co-opted. It seemed to me that in a novel that was Paul Cornell’s “English Winter” entry (spoiler alert--that last sentence is going to crop up in his next three books!) Saul is meant to be the living embodiment of Christmas...something deeply pagan and primal at its core with a thin layer of Christianity over the surface added over the years by well-meaning people who didn’t really get it. (Which, dang, that’s some heady stuff to put in as a freaking C-plot for your novel! Have I mentioned how ambitious this is for a first book?) But Cornell might not have been ambitious enough when it came to his own religious biases, I’ll admit.

Dee: It’s a minor thing. The idea of Saul is a fantastic concept, and only the first of several the New Adventures will provide. I also like his words about his origin: basically “Do you know where YOU came from? No? OK then.” Awesome. There, we have fully dealt with my quibble and on to a related but much happier topic: the church as a place of safety in Cornell’s work. It comes up repeatedly and I like it a lot. Villages? Boom. Countries? Kerplodey. Time? Out of joint. Church? We’ll all hang out here, thanks. Not just here, but definitely in “Father’s Day” as well in the new series.

I like that because one thing that the Whoniverse needs is a place of safety. In this book and in “Father’s Day,” the TARDIS (which normally fills this role) is unable to do so. We get the church instead, and I think it says a lot about the idea that you can’t just leave characters completely lost. There always has to be a still point, a safe zone, or the tension gets past the point of belief in some ways.

John: Oh, and speaking of the TV series, can I just fangeek for a moment about the fact that the Timewyrm’s appearance heralds dire and terrible destruction, the end of the Time Lords, the final death of Rassilon, and all sorts of terrible things that have now happened? Not that I’m saying Russell T Davies read this book and went, “Oooh, that gives me an idea!” But let’s face it, he probably did read this book.

Um, sorry, yes. Churches. There’s no question that Cornell creates (in this book and others) a sort of idyllic England that never was, the England that only existed inside your childhood (assuming you were English, of course, which we’re not) and uses it as emblematic of something the Doctor can both draw on as a source of strength and believes to be worth protecting. I think that in lesser hands, that would be twee and reactionary...and Cornell does kind of veer close to that at points, which is why the TV version of “Human Nature” is about 1/1,000,000,000th as good as the book...but here, it works.

Dee: Speaking of the Timewyrm herself... I think Cornell had a really thankless task here. He did manage to make the Timewyrm as plausible as he could. I still couldn’t really buy her, but at the end I could at least get to “OK, assuming such a character DID exist...” which makes sense. And her using of the Doctor’s guilt against him also makes sense. It’s the Achilles heel he continues to have, and it actually gets worse with Nine, I think. Even Davros tries to use it, although in typical cack-handed fashion. But from inside the mind of the Doctor? Oh yeah, potent stuff.

John: Thankfully, Peter Darvill-Evans was smart enough to limit this kind of story. You’re not going to see many more stories that show the Doctor as a point-of-view character, which saves us from too many novels like...well, I’ve already warned you about ‘Divided Loyalties’. That’s what makes this story even more powerful, I think. We go from the Doctor being this enigmatic, unknowable, towering champion who rarely shows his this portrayal of someone almost rent asunder by internal turmoil over his role as a destroyer of evil and a champion of peace...and then right back to the unknowable exterior. It’s almost as if that glimpse is too much to take in, and we’re forced to pull away.

Which is, I think, my way of saying, “Look, Paul tried valiantly, but he was forced to do the same thing Dicks did--sideline the Timewyrm in favor of other villains because she’s just so cartoonishly EVIL.” Which is something you can’t say, I think, for Chad Boyle. He’s genuinely terrifying and pathetic all at once, like Patrick Hockstetter in Stephen King’s IT.

Dee: Very much like that. In the light of today’s focus on bullying, this looks obvious, but at the time no one was paying much attention and even less in the period in which the bullying was set. And just as often in real life, a bunch of peer disapproval and someone stepping in can be all it takes to stop it. I thought that part was very well done.

John: And I thought it was even better done to have Ace not take the tack of bullying the bully. Far too often, stories like this become glorified revenge fantasies; the bully gets the kind of comeuppance that the author wanted to inflict on their childhood foes, but couldn’t. But here, Ace finds what the Doctor does: genuine sympathy and compassion towards one’s enemies, and a way to redeem them. It’s a strong message, emblematic of much of Cornell’s work (again, reworked TV versions of old novels notwithstanding...) And I applaud it.

And on that note, I think we’ll move on to the next book. I’ll warn you know this one’s gonna be a little weird...remember “Ghost Light”? Same author, no budgetary restrictions.

Timewyrm: Revelation

Ahhh.... this is so much more like it. I don't pretend to understand everything going on in this book, but I loved the ride.

For the first time we really get things that would be almost impossible to visualize on television, even with today's effects. We also get multiple layers of plotting and time looping and other timey-wimey stuff, which is where I have to admit I always go off the rails with time travels shows. Normally, I don't really care. But this book makes me want to trace the layers, if only to see how it's done and applaud.

And we get characterization, thank goodness. Some of the characters are more lightly drawn than others, and some come from earlier books and assume we already know the drill with that particular character, but all are at least cursorily fleshed out and given motivation. Ace is angry and loving and scared and brave as hell. And, of course, we get multiple Doctors.

I am normally leery of multi-Doctor setups. When they're done well, they're incredible (it's well-known to my friends that Time Crash is my favorite episode ever, at all of seven minutes long). The problem is that when they're done badly, they're appalling. The Timewyrm tetrad of books has already seen the bad. This time, praise Rassilon Omega the Other Idris, we have the good. This novel is like a pair of mirrors facing one another and tilted just slightly, there's so much framing going on. For the first time, I find myself not wanting to get into too much detail for fear of spoiling the experience.

Before this gets too glowy, I do have a very slight problem with the Christian bent of the book, but it's a nitpick about one character in particular and it doesn't distract from the whole too much.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Timewyrm: Revelation

If the novelization of 'Remembrance' was where modern Who started, this is the novel that provided it with a lifeline to cling to until it could return to television. Not that the books were in danger of cancellation before 'Timewyrm: Revelation' could see the series that the first three books exemplified hanging around for a couple of years in a sort of desultory fashion, steered by "safe hands" like Dicks and Robinson and Peel and primarily appealing to an ever-smaller audience of nostalgic twenty-somethings. Eventually, the flow of books would have dried up into a trickle, and Doctor Who would have joined the ranks of dormant British cult series like 'The Prisoner' and 'The Avengers', perenially relaunched but never quite catching on with the same fervor as before. Doctor Who would probably have survived without Paul Cornell...but it wouldn't have lived.

Don't get me wrong, this is not Cornell's best novel; that's still to come. (Hint: It's the one time the TV series, which is supposedly the primary source of the canon, broke down and wholesale adapted a story originally written in another medium.) But it's filled with a passion, an energy for revolution, that positively grabs the reader by the arm and demands they engage with the work. Compared to the three novels before it, it's positively astonishing; it's like going to a concert with Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra and Tom Jones as the headliners, and finding out that the closing act is the Sex Pistols.

We get a radical, revisionist take on the Doctor's past, a view of him as a Lonely God tormented by the fall of every sparrow. We get an Ace that for the very first time feels like she could be from the TV series, and for the first time a Timewyrm who seems interesting. We get beautiful, fascinating characters like Saul the sentient church and the terrifyingly accurate Chad Boyle. We get past Doctors portrayed not as party-piece pastiches of their old performances but as Jungian archetypes in the unconscious mind of a god. We get the first hints of the Other and the Cartmel Master Plan, we get Gallifreyan flashbacks that are as endearing as they are unnecessary... We get a novel, for the first time in the series, that really does seem breathtakingly ambitious, far too broad and too deep for the small screen. Paul Cornell, already frighteningly talented even with almost no professional credits to his name at this point, swings for the fences and hits it out of the park on his first try.

And Peter Darvill-Evans, after three mediocre books produced by "safe hands", decides to trust a writer straight out of the fanzines with the final book in the first arc, and sees his choice rewarded beyond anyone's wildest dreams. Small wonder we're about to see more first-time authors than any other tie-in series. The New Adventures might have started three books ago...but this is where they really begin.