Tuesday, February 12, 2013


'Birthright' feels a lot like a ghost story where the ghost is the Doctor.

Really, I want to stop there, because I don't think I can do a better job of summing it up in one sentence than that, but it probably doesn't make a whole lot of sense on its own so I'll explain. This is mostly known for being part of a two-book sequence that takes place simultaneously with 'Iceberg'. 'Iceberg' is a companion-free story with the Seventh Doctor, and this is a Doctor-free story starring Benny and Ace. But let's face it, a Doctor-free Doctor Who story is kind of a nightmare brief, despite some really good episodes of the new series that pulled it off, and this one's been given to Nigel Robinson, whose previous book was...well, let's just say it was not well-received and leave it at that.

But here, he does something very different and fascinating. I don't know if it's the first time anyone's ever done it, but this is certainly the first book that decides to look at the world as a series of consequences of the Doctor's actions. Jared Khan has been chasing the TARDIS for seven hundred years, and his trail is like a tangled thread winding its way through the Doctor's adventures. Margaret Waterfield lives her entire life in the wake of the Doctor's decisions, and Benny and Ace do as well in their own way. Whether it's the Doctor's past or the Doctor's future (not just in the obvious sense, although we'll get to Muldwych later) they can't escape the effect he has on their lives. And by implication, none of us can. We are all the way we are--human history is what it is--because one person made a series of decisions that caused it all. It's hard not to see why people can hate the Doctor when he's viewed in that light. If he's responsible for everything, surely he bears a share of the guilt for the problems we face? It's a question that Benny is still asking herself at the end of the novel.

Of course, the real problem the Doctor has, thanks to his wibbly wobbly timey wimey lifestyle, is that even he's a prisoner of his own manipulations. Some key sequences in the book involve predestination paradoxes that the Doctor logically must set up in between this book and 'Blood Heat'...does the Doctor, you wonder, rage at his future self for forcing him to send flowers to a funeral instead of attending? For that matter, how does the Doctor feel facing his own future, knowing that he's destined to be on the other side of the conversation someday and still calmly explaining to himself that he has no intention of freeing his future self from exile and imprisonment?

Because yes, that's the other thing this book is known for. "Muldwych", the mysterious Time Lord who helps the Charrl, is very strongly hinted at as being a future incarnation of the Doctor. ('Happy Endings' will later pound that hint into your skull with a sledgehammer, just for those few people who tried to suggest he might be the Meddling Monk or something, but that's for a later post.) And even though part of me will always twitch a little at "a future incarnation of the Doctor" as one of those fan-fiction concepts that everyone thinks of and almost nobody ever does well (like "the Doctor's parents", "the Doctor's time on Gallifrey with the Master", and "a second encounter with the Valeyard"...) I still have to admit that thematically, it makes perfect sense here. Everyone in this story is a pawn of larger players, higher powers; everyone has to perform the role assigned to them by fate. And by that light, it makes sense that the Doctor should also be enmeshed in the web of destiny...and who could manipulate  the Doctor if not the Doctor?

Oh yes, and it's also got some great scenes and solid characterization of Benny (and Ace, I suppose, although this is an era during which Ace is at her least likable) and the plot hangs together well and it's just generally a huge improvement on 'Timewyrm: Apocalypse'. But the main thing is all the stuff about the Doctor. Which is pretty impressive, for a Doctor-free book.

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