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 doubts...to 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.