The Dying Days
Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes! This is better. Much better. This is the Doctor Who I know, funny, exciting, thoughtful, beautiful. The minute The Doctor appeared and said "Sorry I'm late - you wouldn't believe state of the traffic around the Horsehead Nebula..." my eyes widened and I knew I was in safe hands. But before the enthusing starts I wanted to remind everyone that you can enjoy this adventure too - it's at the BBC website for goodness sake, here. Just what the license fee is for. I might keep missing out on the next BBC book along, Vampire Science on ebay (at this rate I'll be reviewing the synopsis) and don't even get me started on Legacy of the Daleks, but here is the first really great Eighth Doctor book absolutely free.
Since the novel is available and I want everyone to read it, I'll try to be relatively spoiler free this time. Online, the book is accompanied by a running commentary from the author, Lance Parkin, which highlights moments and fills in references for the unfamiliar. In the introduction he explains that being the final book in the New Adventures range he had to commemorate that series but also look to the future both of The Doctor in the BBC range and also of companion Bernice in her own series of books. Falling between those stools it's easy to argue that actually it's as much of a continuity fest as The Eight Doctors. But unlike that book, those references to past stories don't drive the plot and anything really important is explained in short, clear, crisp style. There is also a devil may care attitude and a particularly shocking moment in the middle you really won't believe, but that just adds to the sense of fun.
Parkin uses the most traditional of stories upon which to build complexity. Ice Warriors invade the Earth. You can tell that much from the cover. I think you can already see their first mistake. The second mistake was picking the time when The Doctor happens to be in the neighbourhood and Bernice Summerfield an alien expert from the future. Really what were they thinking? The actual meat of their plans, the usual hokum about wiping out the human race is theoretically the weakest part of the script, but it's not really the writer Lance Parkin's fault - in fact it was probably by design so that he could mix the traditional with the experimental - as usual it's not about what happens, so much as how it happens.
After the simplicity of Terrence Dick's prose it's with shock and awe I'm faced with Parkin's writing. In my review of Dick's book I was able to list particular moments I enjoyed because they stood out amid the dreck. Here every scene is like that. He's not afraid to let his characters just talk, interact, and be in the space. There are scenes which are entirely filmic, in the reception at a space centre, for example, were you could imagine a steadycam spinning around the characters as they flow through the crowd. But he's also able to hold the attention when the story isn't moving forward and its all about creating mood and tension. Remember the one good bit on that Pescaton's LP when Tom describes the deserted London. There are whole sections just like that here. There are sections which I've gone back and read over once I've finished the book just so that I can enjoy the detail (and now and then spot something I missed first time around).
The one aspect I'd been really afraid of was that New Adventures continuity. I've only read a couple of those and I don't really know the landscape. I know that The Doctor was a much darker character prone to controlling situations and that he had a mission approach to adventure (particularly obvious in Russell T Davies' Damaged Goods, the book we all read when we found out he was going to be writing the new series). They are around, but I found most of them perfectly understandable. When it's revealed that Seventh and friends have visited the future of some of these characters its used to express the madness of the web of time than anything else.
The biggest hangover, Bernice, is an elegantly written character. I understand she'd always been written for Emma Thompson (before the audio actress Lisa Bowerman gave her vocal form) and you can hear her voice behind every word. You can see why Seventh would want her along - she'd be perfect at filling in his spot when he has to go off the rails to get the job done. For various reasons she becomes the focus of the story and carries it off amiably. Cleverly though she's not simply a substitute. Whereas some things just happen for the timelord, she always has to take the long, human route. There is some excellent chemistry with Eighth though, a more believable chemistry than he had with Grace because there's more level playing field intellectually. In some places she even fills in for his lapses of judgment, helping rather than the coping with him in the way the American was doing. Some of the novel's key moments are played out through her own diary entries. It's challenging, but gives the reader an extra level of understanding as the story unfolds, and in some cases a useful historical context.
It helps that this is the Eighth Doctor we know. Already in '97 Parkin defines the character. Unlike the BBC opener you can absolutely hear McGann say these words. Here also, more than the last two books, is it important to see the differences between Eighth and Seventh. I've ready enough of the Virgin New Adventures to know that Seventh was a much darker incarnation often resorting to the methods of his enemies to get from A to B. There is a lovely moment here when Bernice looks into the face of her old friend and realizes that he doesn't have a plan, the master manipulator she'd known and despised at times is gone. I wonder if the perfect way to express the differences would be that whilst Seventh thinks ahead and carries an umbrella around with him all the time to stop the rain, Eighth would just get wet. When he gives that umbrella to Bernice it's an entirely symbolic gesture, the resting of the man he used to be.
It's contemporary Earth, there are aliens involved, why wouldn't The Brigadier and UNIT put in an appearance? Somehow it manages to be a transitional organization, exactly how you would expect it to be between the tv story Battlefield, and the Big Finish audios. The retired Alistair in particular comes across very well in this story, a much more rounded character than he's prone to be written. At no point for example does he say, "Good chaps all of them." "Five rounds rapid." or "I need to call Whitehall." He's also a husband, with Doris becoming a more three dimensional character. Something which is established here is that he's mellowed to The Doctor's appearances now and hardly ever expects them to be in chronological order. Although since it means Alistair has met Eighth and knows what he looks like, making a mess of Big Finish's audio Minuet in Hell which is set a few years later which hinged on him not know what he looked like (although I bet there's a retro-continuity story knocking around somewhere which takes care of that).
It's actually pretty amazing to see how influential this book has been on all the nu-Who which comes after it, and not just in the characterization of The Doctor. You know this new and innovative tv series which has just been playing on BBC these past three months and thrilling millions because of its contemporary feeling? The Dying Days was doing it all eight years ago. There are scenes which feel exactly like they do in the new series, from alien space craft landing in London, to The Doctor facing up to his demons and the chemistry with his companions. Inevitably Aliens In London is structurally very similar, but there are odd moments too when I thought - this is just like when that happened in that episode ... then again it could be just that the book responds to the same archetypes of the classic show as the new series. It manages to use much the same justification for the fact that Britain is constantly under attack from aliens but each time it seems like first contact to the populace - which also helpfully explains why the appearance of the Slitheen in 2006 is any kind of a surprise and the newspapers weren't printing 'More aliens - yawn!' type headlines.
Something which the new series hasn't approached yet, but this story attacks head on is the presentation of events in a contemporary Britain but also one set within a particular universe. Pop culture references illuminate the year in the way a historical might. Appropriate famous people appear (and there is a shocking moment when one of them dies) and become involved in the narrative in a way which couldn't happen on screen (although there is an Andrew Marr-esque moment right at the beginning). They mingle with the fictional characters and have active roles too. To drop some spoilers my three favourite moments are when we're at a reception and we find out that Richard Dawkins is there with his wife (I wonder who that could be), The Doctor shares a joke with Jeremy Paxman, and an American reporter is interviewing Bernard Quatermass and Patrick Moore about the chances of life on other planets. This being the Whoniverse guess who's right?
It's a shame to see Bernice leave at the end - commercial overtaking artistic concerns. I hope the BBC books manage to sneak in a few cheeky references to her now and then. This is that last of the non-BBC material I'll probably end up reading and I'm worried that none of it is going to be this good - certainly if the first few emulate The Eight Doctors its going to be a bit of a slog, worsened by the fact that I've seen how good it can be. My feeling is The new Doctor hasn't quite gotten into his stride yet, not quite sure who he is. We'll see what happens in Vampire Science (if I ever get to read it). And perhaps I'll also find out were Sam went. I can't imagine she's been hiding in the TARDIS for this whole adventure.
I'm getting that Saturday feeling again ...