Twice Upon a Time (BBC Books)Bookmark and Share

Monday, 30 July 2018 - Reviewed by Stephen Blenkinsop
Twice Upon a Time (Credit: BBC Books)
Author: Paul Cornell
Publisher: BBC Books
Released: April 2018
Paperback: 161 pages

This final Target novelisation brings us bang up to date with the Doctor’s adventures, recounting the 12th Doctor’s final journey towards his future, covering events following the end of series 10 that saw him lose his companion Bill to the Cybermen.  Arriving at the South Pole and deciding he doesn’t want to regenerate again he meets his first incarnation who is also wrestling with the prospect of change.  When time stops and the Doctors encounter a First World War soldier who is being pursued by a woman made of glass they begin a journey that sees both incarnations finding out what it means to be the Doctor.

The novelisation follows the broadcast story extremely closely, with relatively little additional material in terms of story development.  However, while the TV episode might have suffered, at least in the eyes of some, from the lack of an enemy to see the Doctor off in spectacular style, this seems less the case here, in a novel that has the space to explore the nature of the change and personal sense of loss that regeneration inflicts on the Doctor.  It, therefore, feels less of a postscript to what went before and more an exploration of some big themes in their own right, with a deeper reflection on the life of the Doctor as he faces his latest regeneration, and on the sense of the unknown as he faces his first.  To fully exploit this, a quite significant development that seems even more explicit here than on broadcast is the idea that the Doctor can choose whether he regenerates or dies, something that raises big questions for the Doctor personally but also for the web of time itself.

This serious subject matter doesn’t stop Cornell having fun throughout the book though.  The Doctor’s nicknames for his earlier incarnation prompt him to recall past encounters with various stars from the world of entertainment including a shared holiday with Mary Berry and a pub crawl with Clive Dunn.  There’s also some fun referencing the show’s history.  When the VHS tape held up by Archie is revealed to be the Doctor’s recording of the Daleks master plan, it elicits the comment ‘how they’d love to get that back’ – a nice acknowledgment of fans’ desire for the return of lost episodes.  And there’s further mischief with a joke addressing the old Dimension/Dimensions inconsistency in the TARDIS acronym.

In common with the other recent releases in this range the author also indulges fans with occasional continuity – some obvious, including references to events in the Snowcap base in The Tenth Planet, to companions Steven and Sara Kingdom, and a moving reference to Susan, - some more subtle, such as the reference to people being the sum of their memories.  The First Doctor getting to use the sonic screwdriver for the first time provides another fan-pleasing moment.  Throughout, Cornell shows the attention to detail one would expect, taking the opportunity to explain why the Blinovitch Limitation Effect isn’t functioning, and delightfully explaining why the First Doctor has to do more work at the console when flying the TARDIS compared with his later incarnations.  There’s also a nice acknowledgment of the legacy of the Target novels themselves with a chapter titled ‘Escape to Danger’.  These references demonstrate real respect for the show but don't distract from the storytelling.

Cornell finishes the book on a very serious note, adding perhaps the most chilling moment in the book with what was for me the revelation that plans for a subsequent Christmas truce in 1915 were stopped by the authorities.  This moment darkens the sombre mood as the story draws to its conclusion, as ever, reality proving to be far more shocking than anything the show can create.  This addition is well judged and feeds the somewhat melancholy mood as the Doctors finally come to terms with their destinies.

The book is not without its problems, however.  In remaining faithful to the broadcast episode the novel does retain what many people felt to be an over the top characterisation of the First Doctor’s dated attitudes.  This can be forgiven as it merely reflects the TV episode itself, however, it may possibly be compounded in the novelisation by an occasionally overstated characterisation of the First Doctor as devoid of humour.  This is something that doesn’t really reflect the softer characterisation that had evolved by this point of this incarnation and even contradicts him making a joke himself earlier in the story, albeit one that demonstrates the first point of criticism.  These are however relatively small points and don’t detract significantly from the positives.

As the final book in this batch of releases it’s worth reflecting on the nature of the Target range and what they offer in the twenty-first century.  My own Target collection has been packed away and living in my parents’ loft for a few years now, these books a remnant of my childhood, a feature of the past, not needed in an age of on demand TV and DVDs.  Reading these recent releases however I’ve rediscovered the joy of Target novels and realised that they can still have a unique place in Dr Who fans' collections .  Whilst they may not be the most challenging of reads it is clear they are written with a great deal of love and it’s a joy to be able to join the Doctor for a couple of chapters on the bus to work or a few spare moments during the day.  And given that these books have a style of their own, the reader can connect with (and appreciate) the series in a uniquely different way.  Until there are further new releases (hopefully!) it may be time for me to pay a visit to my parents’ loft.