Doctor Who. No contest.
Jul 17, 2001 (Updated Feb 6, 2007)
Popular Products in BooksThe Bottom Line The diverse range of styles and authors make the Doctor Who New Adventures a constantly exciting range of novels that improve vastly even on the original television show.
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Once upon a time, there was a unique television hero. A man who believed that he could change the world without being cruel or cowardly. A man of peace who just happened to be surrounded by violence. And because there were a lot of things that needed changing, the man travelled through both time and space, in a London police telephone box that was much larger on the inside. And on the way, he made a lot friends.
But then the BBC cancelled Doctor Who in 1989, and for a while, fans everywhere were faced with the nasty realisation that they might soon have to grow up. And the prospect appalled us all because, as the Doctor once said:
'What's the point of growing up if you can't be childish sometimes?'
Luckily, almost all of the Doctor's travels had been novelised over the years, and the publishers concerned had made an obscene amount of money from the show and built a virtual monopoly on children's publishing in the UK. The novelisations were not of fantastic literary quality, but they were hugely vivid and entertaining retellings of televised episodes that unleashed the reader's imagination to create worlds unfettered by the demands of being filmed in a BBC basement. Unsurprisingly, this gave the publishers a fairly sentimental approach to their favourite cashcow. And so they got a license from the BBC to produce original novels to continue the Doctor's adventures. Originally featuring the last television line-up of Sylvester McCoy's 7th Doctor and Sophie Aldred's Ace, and carrying on from the last television adventure, the books were aimed at a slightly older market than the novelisations, with pretentious titles and bright covers.
The surprising thing is that Doctor Who - The New Adventures actually turned out to be brilliant.
Oh, the first few books were nothing special. In order to build up a readership, Virgin Publishing decided to kick off with a linked series of four novels, about a super-monster called the Timewyrm. Note the silly spelling. The Timewyrm started as a snake-shaped cyborg, but then turned into a demi-God at the end of the first novel. The first three books in the series were deeply unsatisfying adventures by former novelisation writers which did little to embrace the potential afforded by Doctor Who's change of medium to the printed page. The only innovation was to introduce lashings of fan-pleasing continuity references and guest appearances from old characters, and fan-annoying juvenile sex and swearing. It's difficult to see who was supposed to be buying these earliest efforts.
Then everything changed. Virgin took what must have been a tremendous risk by commissioning unpublished fan writer Paul Cornell to conclude the Timewyrm saga. In Timewyrm: Revelation, Cornell produced the first true Doctor Who novel. In a riot of distorted realities and symbolism, Paul still managed to maintain an astonishing degree of emotional realism in his characters.
The plot seemed designed to defy summary. The Timewyrm has invaded the Doctor's mind. In order to defeat it, he sacrifices Ace, who battles her way through his invaded subconscious to release his conscience, which he has bizarrely chained to a tree. The novel's action was divided roughly equally between the Doctor's mind and a sentient church which had been transported to the moon. Constant references to popular culture and an emphasis on strong characterisation anchored this fantastic plot in plausibility. This single novel set the direction for the New Adventures.
The second year was also mixed. A second linked series was published, this time concerning the Doctor's efforts to repair the TARDIS, which was in danger of dying. The range's style had already become extremely diverse. Marc Platt's Time's Crucible was in much the same vein as Revelation, with its epic tale of the TARDIS destroyed and the Doctor's stolen identity. Andrew Cartmel's Warhead was a much darker, cyberpunkish techno-thriller, full of evil corporations and breaches of medical ethics. Andrew Hunt's Witch Mark was a pleasant if slightly uninspired fantasy tale.
Then a rising star produced his first novel. Mark Gatiss is best known as one of the League of Gentlemen, but Doctor Who has always been a clear influence on their twisted brand of humour. Nightshade was Mark's first book, and it's uncomfortable reading. A disembodied alien entity that feeds on people's minds by exploiting their past regrets and disappointments provided a great deal of chilling imagery as war veterans start rising from their graves and a demonic Christ sucks the life from an abbot who'd lost his faith. But at the same time, this grimness is offset by the presence of an elderly actor from a 50s sci-fi show, haunted by rubber suit monsters.
Paul Cornell became the first writer to return to the range with Love and War. Here Ace was written out for a while and a new companion introduced. Professor Bernice Summerfield was a headstrong female archaeologist a good few years before Core Design thought of making a computer game along the same lines. She quickly became the most popular original character in the range, and even starred in her own series of novels when Virgin eventually lost the licence to produce Doctor Who fiction. Themes and motifs from Cornell's first novel were added to and expanded upon. Certain phrases, many of them pinched from Excalibur, reappeared, and it became clear that Cornell was working to his own agenda within the Doctor Who universe. Later, this would become a problem, as other writers adopted this strategy with varying degrees of success.
After a few novels, Ace returned as a combat-hardened space mercenary. She had grown independent from the Doctor, and this lead to some interesting conflicts, which only occasionally became tedious. Eventually she left for good, and so too did Bernice, with a pair of 30th century police officers seeing the Doctor virtually to the end of the series.
A complete biography of this range would be far more work than I'm prepared to do for the seventy cents or so that I'll earn for this article. So I'll skip into summary mode.
Some great books to look out for.
Paul Cornell's third novel provided the conclusion to another linked series, in which an unknown enemy was altering history. The final confrontation takes place in London, 1976. The novel starts with relations between the Doctor, Ace and Bernice strained almost to breaking point, and the book is almost more concerned with their relationship than it is with saving the universe. The book's principal theme, however, is that it is basically a punk manifesto. Not only is almost every influential punk act from the Pistols to the Preachers namechecked, but there are whole pages devoted to discussions of anarchist ideology. The novel restores the balance to one of the most misrepresented and misunderstood artistic movements ever. It deserves a much wider audience. Also, it sees the Doctor at his most blatantly left-wing and anarchistic. And he's not the only one. Even the suspiciously rightist UNIT get in on the mayhem towards the end, as Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart takes his best troops undercover to fight the fascist Vardans. One of the locations for the novel's incredibly convoluted climax is an international peace concert. In a moment loaded with symbolism, the Brigadier joins the Revolution as he orders his men to gun down Paul McCartney and Wings with stun darts before allowing punk band Plasticene to invade the stage.
Return of the Living Dad
One of many rather silly novels written for the range was Kate Orman's fourth effort. Bernice Summerfield, like Lara Croft this summer, had a father who went missing in action. This loss informed many of Bernice's actions during her time with the Doctor, and after her marriage (in another Paul Cornell novel), this unanswered question became her character's last loose end. Published after the screening of the Paul McGann TV Movie, the novel's gentle pace obscures some dark undercurrents, as the Doctor starts to come to terms with the fact that he will soon regenerate, that he will soon die.
Falls the Shadow
OK, this was written by the brother of a friend of mine, and that's probably the main reason why it's here. Daniel O'Mahony's single contribution to the New Adventures is still a colossally ambitious novel, however, full of dark Gods and mutiliation. In fact, it's extremely dark, especially when you happen to know that the guy who wrote it is a perfectly pleasant dude whose only discernable vice is the strange habit of wailing as he types in his attic room.
Yet another Paul Cornell novel, this landmark book saw the Doctor rewriting his genetic code and memory, in order to spend a month as a human. He settles down as a history teacher called John Smith at a quiet English private school, just before the outbreak of the First World War. Another gentle character-based tale ensues, as John Smith falls in love, and fights against a group of aliens who are searching for the Pod which contains the Doctor's identity. The stakes are raised by a sensitive schoolboy who is becoming affected by the Pod, and who is slowly turning into the Doctor. Pseudo-religious imagery, schoolboy brutality and the pathos of a man so world-weary that he deletes his own identity all add up to very nearly the perfect novel. When the Doctor eventually returns, the deceptive ease with which he resolves the situation is startling and obvious. One of the (many) twists and turns of the climax was also bizarrely stolen by John Woo for MI:2. If the grandaddy of action movie slickness can chow down for some bedtime TARDIS reading, why can't you? As with all Cornell novels, however, he undermines the omnipotence of the Doctor's monster-fighting abilities, by displaying his utter inability to deal with some of the messier emotions. The final conflict is not between Time Lord and Aubertide, but between the Doctor and John Smith's sweetheart, a woman he is no longer able to love. By again pinching dialogue from Excalibur, Cornell turns an almost unfathomable existential dilemna into a magically heart-rending scene of futile love. I'd go as far as to say this is the most satisfying novel I've ever read, and I do have a degree in French literature before anyone writes me off as a hopeless sci-fi junkie.
Christmas on a Rational Planet
One of the strengths of the New Adventures range was that the editors were really flexible. As well as encouraging unpublished writers (rejected mine though, didn't ya, ya b*st*rds), they were perfectly happy for a writer to come along with a book that totally subverted the entire series, and threw into question everything we thought we knew.
Lawrence Miles was one of the worst offenders, and though he has since drifted somewhat up his own bottom, his debut novel suggested that damn near every piece of technobabble in the series was a blatant lie, and that the Time Lords were fascist slaves to technology and order. The carnival queen, with the unwitting help of new companion Chris Cwej, seeks to bring magic back into the world, creating absolute chaos in a small American village around the end of the year 1799. This novel was part of a linked series concerning psionic powers in human beings. To my delight, much of this sequence was heavily linked to France for some reason, so my studies enhanced my enjoyment possibly slightly more than the novelists realised.
The Also People
The best of these novels were definitely the more laidback. This is possibly because they seemed more like novels, rather than ideas people had had for televised Doctor Who adventures and then converted into novel form. Ben Aaronovitch, who had written one of the best-loved scripts of the show's final television years, wrote a story which, while a clear piece of theft from Iain M. Banks's Culture novels, still managed to be fresh, bold and very funny. The TARDIS lands inside a Dyson sphere belonging to the simply-named People, and the Doctor, Bernice, Cwej and Roz Forrester spend their time exploring, finding out about the magnificent culture that Aaronovitch had thought up. To justify their presence, they solve a murder, and there's a couple of action sequences, but this is essentially a preliminary attempt to set up a new power in the Doctor Who universe. The People (and the machines that were Also People, if you were wondering about the title) would later start a war with the Time Lords of Gallifrey in Bernice's solo adventures. It also concludes the development of a sub-plot that had been running through a few of the books about Kadiatu Lethbridge-Stewart, a genetically-engineered killing machine who had been adopted by the Brigadier's descendants. Kadiatu had independently invented time travel earlier in the range, but by this time had reverted to an animalistic state. The Doctor's other concern in the book is to rehabilitate her. It's just occurred to me that Buffy used a similar device when Angel returned in an animalistic state from Hell (or wherever), but Joss Whedon is a self-confessed Doctor Who fan, so what the hell.
Obviously, there were a few duds in the range, even after Paul Cornell saved the Timewyrm sequence from unremitting mediocrity. Jim Mortimore wrote several grim and desperately self-important books in which everyone died, and then added really bizarre author's notes whining about how miserable he was. Simon Messingham wrote a very self-consciously clever novel in which the very act of the Doctor's arrival causes the problems. Clever but utterly forgettable. Neil Penswick wrote The Pit, a really strange voyage through time and space which paired the Doctor with poet William Blake and seemed to be setting up a big plot arc. Thankfully, it was so poor that subsequent authors utterly ignored the story, despite the fact that it featured a whole star system being destroyed.
But overall, this was the strongest series of science-fiction novels I've ever encountered. For several years, until the BBC realised how much money they'd make if they took over the licensing themselves, Virgin churned out a great novel every month. It was a fine time.
The earliest BBC novels were dreadful, but they later picked up beyond everyone's expectations. With Paul Cornell having virtually moved on, the driving visionaries were undoubtedly Lawrence Miles and Lance Parkin. The new publishers became very keen on lengthy plot arcs, the price we pay for Babylon 5, it seems. I'm a little behind on the BBC range, but with human TARDISes, an amnesiac Doctor and Time Lord wars, it's improved immensely in recent years. The best introduction is undoubtedly The Burning by Justin Richards, in which the Doctor (now Paul McGann's version) walks out from the wilderness without his memory. Another classic which needs no knowledge of the series is Lance Parkin's boldly experimental The Infinity Doctors, which takes place in an alternative universe where the Doctor stays on Gallifrey.
You might find it difficult to get hold of the New Adventures now. Since the BBC took over, all the back stocks of Virgin novels have been pulped. There are still copies lying around, and you can probably pick them up quite cheaply. I may well write a second part to this guide, focussing on the new BBC novels, and the New Adventures sister range, the Missing Adventures, which provided a much more radical and nasty response to Virgin's loss of the licence.