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Aug 08, 2007

The Taking of Planet 5

5 The Taking of Planet 5 opens with a rather wonderful, new series friendly idea.  The Doctor and his plus two pitch up in Professor Mildeo Twisknadine’s Wandering Museum of Verifiably Phantasmagoric, a museum of fiction items which at one time or another were thought to be real before being debunked or disappearing, the primary example being the planet Vulcan which was ‘detected wrongly in 1880, disproved by Einstein, and then deliciously discovered again in 2003, only to vanish by 2130’. 

There’s a lovely moment too when letters sent to 221b Baker Street are pulled out, sent to an obviously fictional detective, the Doctor’s reaction to which is an obvious reference to All-Consuming Fire.  What makes it work for the new series and the spark for the story is that they inevitably discover evidence for a totally fictional entity which really shouldn’t be there and the Doctor decides to head through time and investigate what it’s doing there. 

The distinctly unnewseriesy choice (listen, if these authors can make up words so can I) is that the newly non-fictionalised entities are the the Elder Things from H.P. Lovecraft’s work.  I once went to university with someone who was nutty for his work and Doctor Who and would probably love this book.  Personally, I wouldn’t recognise Cthulhu (or whatever his/her/its name is) if they held a door open for me but if there’s something positive to be said about the book, I did get a general idea of some of the concepts of those stories and what the Elder Things should look like. (1)

listen, if these authors can make up words so can I

But not enough to follow whole tracts of the story because unfortunately the rest was a pretty hard going and crucially it’s to do with the language being employed.  Simon Bucher-Jones and Mark Clapham develops into another story set with the mythology begun in Alien Bodies as time lords from the future have also been attracted to the past by these Elder Things hoping to use them within their time war.  Meanwhile, their mission is being manipulated by the Celestis, the race developed from the Gallifreyan Celestial Intervention Agency and it transpires that a monster from the old series is the ultimate reason for them all being there and what the Doctor eventually ends up battling against.

What the authors have done is attempt to employ the same rather incomprehensible syntax which Miles tends to use in relation to these characters or technology almost as though we’re reading a version of our language from the far future.  Example:  “Inchoate, undifferentiated mass, the chronoplasm of the outer shell engulfed him, drinking him down with great drafts of its own substance, pulling him remorselessly into the interior dimensions.”  Which is fine in small doses, but whole tracts of the book are written that way and more often than not the action is lost; it’s Doctor Who with literary pretensions again, and once again it keeps the novel from being the rattling good read it could be.

What you come away with is the sense that actually what the authors have been trying to do, as with Alien Bodies, is to use tricks and subterfuge and complications to obscure what is in essence a fairly simple base-under-siege stories, and on this occasion two running in parallel;  as well as the running about in time lord base in pre-historic Antarctica, there’s also an expedition site in 1999 and both eventually end up being menaced by Celestis.  It’s fairly clearly inspired by John Carpener’s The Thing (which I believe was also influenced by Lovecraft -- how meta) (2).  There are a couple of long scenes between the Celestis and the head time lord that explain what the outer shell of the plot is about, with giant universe sized creatures (3) but after a while they end up seeming about as relevant to this story as the Xeraphin in Timeflight.  Perhaps they’ll become really important in some later books.

after a while they end up seeming about as relevant to this story as the Xeraphin in Timeflight

Despite all of this, it’s not an unenjoyable read.  The characters are pleasant enough company; most of the human characters are Pertweesque cyphers but the two Celestis, called One and oh yes, Two come across as murderous, alien, Mulder and Scully (as well they might) trying to deal with the fact that the universe isn‘t quite the way they hoped it would be (4).  There’s the welcome return of the Humunculette from Alien Bodies, the roguish version of the Doctor, and the scenes between him and Compassion are a delight (they even have the ‘is you’re name supposed to be ironic’ conversation).  Fitz has regained some of his charm, wonderfully unbewildered by they many oddly shaped people he comes in contact with.

There’s also a strong dose of humour throughout, the epicentre of which being the Doctor who is in full bluff mode attempting to convince the time lords of the future that he’s one of their generals by referring to The Green Death as one of the major battles and the Adamsy scene towards the end where he’s floating in deep space and daydreaming about where his life has been and where it could go.  There’s also a quite touching scene in which his has to convince a new-born TARDIS (see below) that he’s been good to his type-40 and that they’re best friends rather than slave owner and property.

Also, this is the book which may have inspired the line from The Impossible Planet about TARDISes being grown instead of built.  Part of the time lord plans is the building of a ‘hatchery’ (for want of a better word) in which a flotilla of young battle-TARDIS are grown in order to aid the titular planetary invasion.  These are far more organic items than the Doctor’s TARDIS, with even greater sentience.  As the Doctor says to them when he thinks the situation is particularly grim, if they take care of the blue box, it’d be like human’s adopting a neanderthal (think California Man).

this is the book which may have inspired the line from The Impossible Planet about TARDISes being grown instead of built

Such concepts are certain to return in future ‘episodes’.  At one point we meet a future President of Gallifrey and he’s a bloke which means it doesn’t look good for Romana.  In that same scene, the presence of nine Gallifreys is revealed, some hidden in pocket dimensions, which sounds like a pretty good insurance policy.  This is ‘mythology’ story too and towards the end there’s also a cathedral sized bit of foreshadowing as the Humunculette’s TARDIS, Marie implies that there’s even more to Compassion than meets the eye and a figure appears from the darkness who I think will turn out to be a pretty Masterly presence in the future. 

(1)  On page 57, there’s a footnote.  Fitz mentions Griffin, the villain of the piece from Unnatural History and at the bottom of the page is a message which simply says ‘See Doctor Who - Unnatural History’.  In the early days of Star Trek tie-in novels, pages would be filled with these as every single reference to a past adventure would be indicated comic book style, mostly to the James Blish novelisations of the classic tv stories.  My reaction on seeing this one is -- with all the other continuity references throughout the book to this series of books and the television series, you think this one needs explaining!?! 

(2)  While I'm here, I could also mention that the All-Consuming Fire also featured the Cthulhu Mythos and that its no stranger to the Whoniverse since it's also appeared in White Darkness by David A. McIntee and Gary Russell's Divided Loyalties [source].  I haven't read either of those, but if that stuff is already in the Whoniverse, already part of that reality, how can the Doctor identify it as otherwise fictional?  Oh well.  Three reasons for the fall of Atlantic etc ...

(3)  At the end of the book, after the epilogue, there’s an ‘Annexe’ (a posh way of saying Appendix) which is apparently (assuming it’s not simply made up) an extract from a cosmology paper by Simon Bucher-James.  Isn't this like a rerunning an old Open University programme on BBC Four directly after the main programme just in case we didn't understand what went on?  Apart from explaining why it often seems as though you’d need to be a cosmologist to actually follow half of what’s going on in the book, if its presence is to enunciate some of the concepts it pretty well fails because it’s even less comprehensible.  Plus it manages to include ten more footnotes within three pages which has to be some kind of record -- that's impressive even to someone like me who turned squirreling information away in footnotes to keep an essays word length down into a fine art, to the point of even, I think, including a footnote within a footnote.  That said, Bucher-James is to be congratulated for using the phrase ‘that said’ at the start of a sentence just when I was beginning to think it was one of the lazy crutches only I use.

(4)  It's hard to hate any character who kills off the Borad from Timelash for sport.

Comments

“Inchoate, undifferentiated mass, the chronoplasm of the outer shell engulfed him, drinking him down with great drafts of its own substance, pulling him remorselessly into the interior dimensions.”

That would be the HP Lovecraft influence, then. I don't think anyone's used the word 'inchoate' in the past 80 years without it being a Lovecraft reference.

Michael Houellebecq's book on Lovecraft's influence as a definitive novelist of the 20th century is a cracking introduction to his work, by the way.

And surely it's hard to do a 'The Thing (From Another World)' riff in Who fanfic without also referencing 'Seeds of Doom'?

And again! Another swirly round thing with an icon in the middle!

You're doing this deliberately now.

TimC -- obviously Seeds. Forgot about that!

I've commented on Lovecraft-in-Who before in another comment-thread here on the blog - as I said before, I'm not sure if the Lovecraft Elder Gods, Outer Gods and Great Old Ones "fit" with the Doctor Who universe.

Any story-universe they are brought into they tend to overshadow; they are just too fundamentally dispiriting to be part of the Doctor Who universe.

(And the Nu universe, even more so, as the Doctor is supposed to be the only god-like being left.)

They are used magnificently, however, in Grant Morrison's Zenith graphic novels, as they are a central focus of those stories.

About "inchoate": I encounter it not infrequently in the course of my work. I cost legal files and a significant proportion of my work concerns Care Proceedings brought by Local Authorities. One of the vital documents in those proceedings is the "Care Plan" which should show in excruciating detail what the future of the Child concerned should hold. All too often the plans are described as "inchoate"…which is a polite legal way of saying "they're complete bollocks, you don't know what you're on about".

Actually the similarity between Cthulhu and Social Services is scary: they both have tentacles which go places you wouldn't want; they both have "ultimate power" (or at least think they have); they both can drive you mad just by being anywhere near you. Just don't get me started on Solicitors (some of whom are OK, really, but others…)

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