June 9th, 2013
By 1991, Virgin Books (who had bought up Target some years previously) were rapidly coming to the end of the TV stories they could novelise, and there was no likelihood of a new TV series coming out any time soon. There was only one thing for it.
They’d have to hire people to write some new, original Doctor Who stories.
The New Adventures series started in much the same way as every other SF tie-in series, promising “stories too broad and deep for the small screen,” but actually starting with a story from Terrance Dicks, and following up with one from John Peel (the hackiest of all the Target writers), both of them trying and failing to be more ‘adult’ — Dicks by writing about Nazis, Peel by putting in scenes of rape and sexual harassment that read like a PG-rated Gor novel.
But there were two things about the New Adventures that made it very different from, say, the Star Wars “Extended Universe”. The first, and the thing that gets mentioned most in essays like this, was that several writers who had worked on the TV series in its closing years were involved with the New Adventures. Ben Aaronovitch, Marc Platt and Andrew Cartmel all wrote books for the series, including ones that were among the first handful published. This gave the series a certain amount of credibility as the official continuation of the TV show in another medium, especially since fans were encouraged to believe that the books were following a (largely fictional) “Cartmel Masterplan” which detailed what would have happened had the show continued.
But far more important was Virgin’s policy of openness to new writers. Many of the writers for the New Adventures were writing their first novel, and had little or no previous experience. That’s certainly the case for Paul Cornell, who wrote the fourth New Adventure, Timewyrm: Revelation.
Cornell had only written one piece of professional work before — a TV play that had won a young writers’ competition — and Timewyrm: Revelation was an adaptation of some of his fanfic, and so one might have expected it to be on pretty much the same level as the series so far had been.
The novels prior to this — and indeed many of them after it — were ‘adult’ in the least interesting sense of the word, typical 90s grimungritty “look, I can do naughty swears, and I have smoked a maryjooana cigarette once and seen a bare lady’s chest and everything” nonsense. Cornell, on the other hand, seems to have had in his head the astonishing notion that he was meant to write a proper novel, with characters with interior lives and motivations, and with an actual prose style.
The result was, if not the most interesting piece of work in Doctor Who since The Mind Robber, certainly the one that went the furthest away from what was expected from Doctor Who for a decade or more. While it’s ostensibly the culmination of the four-novel Timewyrm “story arc” (for this was the 90s, and story arcs had been invented, and sadly Doctor Who would never again be free of their curse), it’s far, far more interesting than that suggests. Much of the novel takes place after the Doctor and Ace have been killed, for a start, and a good chunk of it takes place inside the Doctor’s own head.
The blazing boy stepped forward and bowed to her, his face erupting in little explosions of flesh. “We salute you. You are one of us now.”
“Listen, mate, I did what I did deliberately. I’m no sacrifice.”
“But that’s the whole point!” the ageing woman croaked, laying a wrinkling hand on Ace’s head. “We gave our lives freely also. The Doctor still regrets it, still keeps us in mind, still maintains us through his guilt.”
“Is that it then? You’re here because he feels guilty?”
The shivering woman, Katarina, kissed Ace’s boot. “I heard priests say while I was alive that we are but the imaginings of the gods. This proves it.”
Ace withdrew her boot. “Where do you lot, well, live?”
The blazing boy pointed downwards. “In the Pit. We live deep within the lowermost reaches of the Doctor’s mind. There his conscience is still alive, forever suffering, enchained.”
The story connects the big and the small in all sorts of interesting ways — the main climax of the book is the defeat of a villain, but the villain is a school bully. Very early on, the Doctor, while casting an I Ching hexagram, restates the old Hermetic maxim “as above, so below”, confirming that Cornell’s vision of the Doctor has much in common with the David Whitaker Mercurial concept. But here “as above, so below” takes on a very 90s form, being tied in with the recursive self-similarity of fractals.
And self-similarity — and self-difference — is what this novel is about more than anything else. In particular, it’s about the differences between the different incarnations of the Doctor, and essentially presents as its thesis that several versions of the Doctor — including the seventh — are fundamentally broken, and need to be fixed. In particular, it hints that there is something very, very wrong with the break between the sixth and seventh Doctors — in a book that’s full of doors as symbols of change and growth, the sixth Doctor is the only past incarnation of the Doctor not to appear, being trapped, walled up, in a room within the seventh Doctor’s mind that has no doors by which he can escape. This, like so much else from this novel, is something that will be built on a lot over the next five years.
Timewyrm: Revelation is a very flawed novel — it’s obviously a first novel, and some of the attempts at showing “look, this is real literature!”, like the epigraphs from Aldous Huxley, Hilaire Belloc and William Blake, backfire somewhat and give it a little of the feeling of the work of a pretentious sixth-former. But it’s a good novel, and it shows that there is a future for non-TV Doctor Who, that “things you couldn’t do on TV” doesn’t just have to mean breasts and rude words.