Wow indeed! Knotting together threads from stories as diverse as the TV Movie, The Eight Doctors, Vampire Science, Alien Bodies and dozens of others retconning some, developing ideas from others, Unnatural History is one of those ludicrous, compulsive, excessive, surreal, imaginative novels which is difficult to define, consistently infuriating to read but paradoxically engrossing. This is less straightforward than either of Jon & Kate's previous novels so there’s a lot to talk about but I don’t want to be here all day and I’ll probably forget to mentioned something I’ve enjoyed. So instead I’m simply going to warn you that this may not be the most consistent piece of writing you’re ever going to read.
It’s difficult in an age when incidents of new Doctor Who fiction are reported on a daily basis to remember when these monthly Eighth Doctor novels where the only real continuation of the narrative outside of the DWM strip. Something like this must have been devastating and exciting, with even the merest continuity mention (Grace! Kramer!) having led to Utopia sized incidents of mass squeeing years before a word had been invented to describe what was going on (and I personally am not going to rest until Victoria Coren is flouncing purposefully around a Panoptical convention looking for the origin of the word ‘Squee’ for an episode of Balderdash and Piffle).
I personally am not going to rest until Victoria Coren is flouncing purposefully around a Panoptican convention looking for the origin of the word ‘Squee’ for an episode of Balderdash and Piffle
In many ways this is a traditional Doctor Who adventure with the time team investigating, getting captured, escaping, getting captured, escaping, doing some more investigating before a big finale and a downbeat epilogue. The novel picks up a couple weeks after the close of Dominion when the Doctor and friends had been drawn to San Francisco. It’s to the scene of the Doctor’s last ditch effort to save the planet when the Eye of Harmony within the Tardis opened at the end of the millennium, the hitherto unnoticed effect of which has been to create a dimensional time rift drawing all kind of fantastical entities to the city which is being bent out of shape. The Tardis has been dropped in to try and stop the rift from doing the nasty and it’s up to the Doctor and Fitz and a new version of Sam which has been created for various reasons to try and sort it all out.
Meanwhile, other complications mount (which is noted at one point when its suggest that one of the villains of the piece collect a number and wait in line whilst the Doctor deals with the whole of the range of crises that have developed). The local area is filling with Men In Black-style with all kinds of strange sights, mythic beasts including unicorns to interesting attired aliens in fezzes. An unnaturalist (beautiful concept -- someone who collects mythic creatures), is in the city collecting specimens with the help of some new series friendly Henchs (which as their name suggests do his dirty work) with the Doctor and this alternative Sam at the top of his list. An emissary of the Faction Paradox, a small boy, has dropped into the mix too, to observe and make the most of all of the well, paradoxes that are building up around the rift taking samples to and making deals at opportune moments. There’s also something large waiting under the Golden Gate Bridge with the potential to destroy half the city.
It’s almost as though there’s a meta joke going on about how Vancouver doubled for San Francisco in the TVM and that’s where the action is occurring here.
About the only disappointment actually is that we don’t get to see much of the city as it passes by through the window of the Bug as it sweeps about the streets, or rather, much is implied instead of described (is that all potential uses of the word used up)? It’s not really any city in particular apart from the aforementioned landmark. It’s almost as though there’s a meta joke going on about how Vancouver doubled for San Francisco in the TVM and that’s where the action is occurring here. Or with everything that’s happening the characters haven’t much time to take in the sights so why should we? Plus it’s a very odd experience reading a story set in the near past which was written for the near future with none of the cultural references you’d expect.
That’s generally offset by including characters who’ve drifted in from other times or whose point of view hasn’t changed in decades. Fitz has a web of contacts in the city collecting information about the strange happening and the most important is Kyra, a woman born at the same time as Fitz, but obviously older than him now, whose appears to have stepped in from an Armistead Maupin novel, totally aware of her status as a cultural stereotype. When she’s not pointing out where stray bits of the Doctor’s timeline are floating about the city (don’t ask) she provides an opportunity for Fitz to wallow in nostalgia and come to terms with his place in the universe.
like Human Nature, we have an alternative version of Sam and the question is whether she should have to give up her life so that the Doctor can have his version back.
Most of which could potentially alienate the reader, where it not for the very human, indeed Human Nature story at its heart. Again some time before the novel’s story unfolds, our Sam, blonde Sam, was caught up in the rift and her timelines has been rewritten creating the dark haired version glimpsed in Alien Bodies who never travelled with the Doctor, but instead lived on the streets, became junkie and now has a relatively normal life working in a video store. As the book opens, the Doctor has come to find her and she grudgingly agrees to follow him back to the US for reasons she can’t quite understand. So yes, like Human Nature, we have an alternative version of Sam and the question is whether she should have to give up her life so that the Doctor can have his version back. I won’t tell you how it’s resolved, but lets just say that it’s a handy way to update the cultural references which are often one of the joys of this book series.
This Sam is superbly drawn, absolutely sympathetic like and yet unlike the one we know and love. But unlike John Smith, the irony that eventually develops is that our Sam, blonde Sam, might actually be the wrong Sam. The implication is that the Sam who entered the Tardis in The Eight Doctors had been re-engineered by the Doctor’s regenerative cycle to become the perfect companion, with two alternative sets of bio data created in the process. Oddly enough this is an idea which was toyed with in the new series, that the episode Paul Abbot never wrote for the Boomtown gap in the first series would reveal that Rose had been engineered by the Doctor to be the perfect companion after years of taking imperfections around the universe. See what I mean -- wild concepts wrapped up with normality.
[Update: I've just been reading Lance's AHistory and it seems I might have slightly misunderstood this and it's more closely wrapped up with something that happens in the end. But actually, I think both theories are valid. Possibly.]
It’s the Faction Paradox!
What isn’t normal but totally luxurious is this concept of bio data, which is another hold over from Alien Bodies but better explained here. Whereas DNA holds a person’s biological make up, bio data is everything including someone personal timeline. And as the novel explains and demonstrates, this bio data can be bent and edited which is how the Faction Paradox get their jollies -- as they do in here stealing one of the Doctor’s childhood memories. I’d read about this elsewhere but the upshot is that it’s wonderful device for explaining away inconsistencies in the grand narrative -- it’s not just the ebb and flow of time, it’s the Faction Paradox re-editing the Doctor’s personal timeline for their own ends. How can the Doctor be at the fall of Atlantis/sinking of the Marie Celeste/fall of the Roman Empire on multiple occasions? It’s the Faction Paradox! I suspect there’ll be more on this in future novels.
Primarily the book is also about returning the Doctor to another situation of being replete with mystery without totally reconfiguring the incarnation. The story embraces the complexities of the character and the potential for multiple origins (something which the unnaturalist tries to straighten out) but also, inadvertently provides a justification for his sometimes wildly differing personalities in some of these novels -- he is in flux as well as the universe and as he suggests at one point (I’m paraphrasing) sometimes a fallen god, sometimes a human professor who thinks he’s an alien. There is some ambiguity though as to how much of the disaster in the book is the Doctor’s fault, whether he’s simply clearing up after himself for the usual 279 pages.
There is some ambiguity though as to how much of the disaster in the book is the Doctor’s fault, whether he’s simply clearing up after himself for the usual 279 pages.
Plus another character is introduced a Scottish professor who through the magic of text isn’t really explained but seems to know a hell of a lot about the Doctor -- he’s all powerful too but not a time lord and although he’s pivotal we don’t find out that much about him. It’s great that such a figure can appear from nowhere and make sense but also have you wondering who he is. Unless he’s a carry over from some New Adventure I haven’t read and everyone else was ‘pointing’ and shouting ‘oh it’s him!’. The general point is that even after all these years, there’s a hell of a lot we don’t know about the Doctor and that this is going to be a long haul journey into discovering lots of new things.
Incidentally, I’ve finally managed to retrospectively cast Fitz. Who better to play him (at least in the theatre of my imagination) than Dead Like Me’s Mason, Callum Blue? Obviously I’m overlaying some of the quirks of that character onto Mr. Kreiner but the fit works for me, especially here in the scenes when it becomes apparent that Fitz prefers the alternative Sam (for, ahem, various reason) because she’s more like him than the Doctor and not because smokes and drinks and cusses. They both have that kind of broken background but it’s also becoming apparent that like blonde Sam, his loyalty to the Doctor is leading to a modifying of his behaviour as he understands his role in the companion/time lord dynamic -- to keep the Doctor thinking and acting in a straight line.
a novel that’s both clinically simple and unhygenically complex
Inevitably I’ve only managed to impact on the surface of a novel that’s both clinically simple and unhygenically complex. This is not a book for the faint-hearted and certainly not something for anyone looking for a fairly traditional Doctor vs. the Aliens read. I’ve said it before and I’m going to be boring by saying it again, this is the ultimate in flexible formats and as dvd documentary producer Keith Barnfather says in this month’s DWM, Doctor Who is a ‘concept’ not just a television series and can be bent around multiple format and also writing styles. There’s a country mile between this and Dominion just as that was different to Revolution Man and they’ve all got nothing to do with Timelash (thank god).
One book to go before Interference then and given that these past three have dealt with time rifts of various types, I’m guessing that Autumn Mist is going to throw in another one. There really are definite patterns developing here…