John: With ‘Nightshade’, we get another writer who will prove to have a significant future in Doctor Who. But at this point, we’re a long way away from the tremendously successful Mark Gatiss of 2012, who’s working on his fifth script for the revived series and has done tons of other TV both as a writer and a performer. This is his first published work. Do you think this feels like a first-timer? Because it sure doesn’t to me.
Dee: I think that he’d been writing this in his head for a long time, slicing and adding, shifting emphasis on who was important and who wasn’t. The character of Vijay feels like a later addition, for instance, one added because after Ace’s well-known intolerance for bigotry. The Robin-Ace interaction feels like something written by someone very young. As a result, I think he’d been self-editing for a long time.
John: Yes, but that’s something you don’t generally see in first-time writers. Cornell’s book is the kind of thing you expect to see from a really good debut novel: Wildly undisciplined and occasionally self-indulgent, but with an energy that drives it despite it being somewhat scattershot. While this...Gatiss is really hitting the theme and plot like a black belt cracking through a stack of cinderblocks, with not just power but precision. There’s very little in this book that feels extraneous or unnecessary.
Dee: Actually, there’s a lot that feels truncated to me. And just because you don’t see it in first-time writers doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen, the exception that proves the rule. That said, I would have preferred some Cornellian self-indulgence and energy. But it does provide an interesting contrast to Witchmark.
John: In the sense of, “In contrast to Witchmark, it’s interesting”? No, I know what you mean here. It doesn’t feel adolescent like Witchmark did. It feels like the work of an adult, especially on an emotional level. Instead of seeing something twee like Ace’s “Not the unicorns!” moment, we get characters that have some heft to them. Even the minor characters like Medway wind up feeling like real people, because it’s a novel about memory and nostalgia, and so he has to push himself to get into the minds of the characters. I think maybe that’s why this is Gatiss’ best portrayal of the Doctor, because he can’t simply treat him as an icon and leave it at that.
Dee: He tries, a bit. But you’re right, it’s not as flat as his portrayal in the new series scripts. What I find very interesting is that, except for the Abbott who is distinctly without it, faith plays no role at all. That’s a huge contrast to Cornell. No one in the novel has any religious feeling at all, including the old people who might legitimately be expected to. No one really calls on $deity. Interesting.
John: You’re right. I hadn’t really noticed it, but this is just not a novel about religion at all. It’s a novel that features Oliver freaking Cromwell in flashback, and it’s got almost no religion! I think that’s to its benefit, though. I think that he’s not writing a novel about the power of faith, and if you’re not writing a novel about faith as a saving force then having a character who tries to use faith to save themselves and fails is just unnecessarily bleak, and this is already a pretty bleak novel. (Which is probably an understatement--this is a book about people whose best years are behind them and who want to live in the past instead of the present. That’s bleak stuff on the face of it. The scene where Holly gives up and lets herself die because the memory of her dead lover is better than the man standing right next to her is probably the most depressing thing you’ll see in Doctor Who.)
Dee: It’s just interesting to note. I did like the flashback scene, by the way. I wish there had been more of them, showing the effects over time rather than being told by an old book. I think those might have been victims of the editing we discussed, though. I also felt that the flashback scenes felt more satisfying than the end of the novel.
John: I think that just about everything felt more satisfying than the very end of the novel. Or were you not talking about the scene where the Doctor basically just straight up kidnaps Ace?
Dee: No, that’s what I’m talking about. Kidnaps, and doesn’t even face her. That was both cowardly and cruel, sorry Mark.
John: Yeah. It’s something that I can kind of accept, because this is my third or fourth read-through of the series and I know there’s a handwave-y explanation coming up in five or so books, but it’s still rough, and I can only imagine what it must have felt like for you. This is, I think, definitely where Ace’s relationship with the Doctor begins to change from what we saw on TV, and it’s never going to be the way it was again. I wonder if Gatiss had it forced on him? It certainly doesn’t feel like he’s trying to “sell it” as in character for the Doctor...
Dee: No, it feels like “AGH OK I WILL WRITE THIS BUT I DON’T HAVE TO LIKE IT AUGH.” Caps intentional. Sort of like taking that cough syrup... I’ll do it, and I’ll go along, but yech, the taste.
John: And coming as it does after such a good book, it feels even worse. Seriously, I think Gatiss did such a good job here. He integrated what he saw as a need for Doctor Who’s trademark gruesome horror with the needs of a serious, adult novel better than he ever will after this; and he made it a recognizable Doctor Who story without it feeling formulaic, something I don’t think he’ll ever manage again. Things like dislocating the Doctor’s arm...I mean, injuring the Doctor is almost going to become a cliche of the New Adventures, but it was so shocking at the time. It made the Doctor vulnerable in a visceral way that having him piss and moan about dying in a cellar in Cardiff just doesn’t do.
Dee: At this point, by the way, I am just pretending the Doctor-As-Ecoterrorist book never happened, OK? Because you can’t take Ace there and then bring her back to the Ace cuddling Robin in the dark.
John: I have no problem with treating Andrew Cartmel’s three novels as a self-contained separate canon, no. Mind you, Robin and his romance with Ace is something of an exception to that statement I made about “well-realized, well-developed characters with depth” earlier...his basic plot function in this novel is to be cute. I feel like there’s not a whole lot of chemistry between the two of them, other than the basic “he makes me feel squishy” type. You agree?
Dee: Yeah... that has the impression of being written a lot longer ago, and just not changed much. And I’m not sure I want Ace to change, but... looks like that’s backed into a corner, so.
John: Yeah, that’s already halfway out the window and the next book is where it hits ground. Not to spoil or anything...