Twice Upon a Time (BBC Audio)Bookmark and Share

Thursday, 9 August 2018 - Reviewed by Peter Nolan
Twice Upon a Time (Credit: BBC Audio)
Adapted by: Paul Cornell
Based on the script by: Steven Moffat
Read by: Mark Gatiss
Cover by: Anthony Dry
Duration: 3hrs 15mins
Publisher: BBC Audio
Originally Released June 2018

“Stories too broad and too deep for the small screen.”

That was the credo of the Doctor Who New Adventures novels of the 1990s. It’s a phrase that is written on the heart of certain circles of fandom right next to “Never cruel or cowardly.” It seems appropriate then that one of the authors that most defined the voice of those books, Paul Cornell, uses his last Doctor Who book (though he’s said that before, in fairness) to lend greater breadth and depth than the small screen could allow.

Twice Upon a Time was always a remarkable story to play out on a Christmas Day. Ultimately it’s the story of a man, standing at the precipice, deciding whether or not to commit suicide. Normally that sort of thing is the reserve of Albert Square, where Christmas means even more misery than usual. But in 2017 Doctor Who danced on the tiny overlap that allowed it to be a funny, thrilling adventure about wanting to die with dignity. Part of that trade-off was the Doctor’s exact reasons and feelings not having room to be deeply explored, but Cornell takes full advantage of his page count to give us exactly that. It’s no less witty or packed with incident, but it more clearly acknowledges that this is a story full of characters who are, one way or another dead or dying.

The Doctor’s yearning for completeness comes to the fore of his thoughts. His desire to be able to finally provide a full stop to his life and say ‘so that was it.’  River comes to the fore of his thoughts and, in a genius spark of perspective, Cornell notes that this is a Doctor who lived for 75 years in a rather settled life. Twenty-four years in one long night with River, and then fifty years at St.Luke’s University. He’s had his retirement and his good death. Why can’t he just have it?

Bill’s future history with Heather is also fleshed out and with purpose as it shadows the Doctor’s dilemma. We learn of them returning to Earth to live a full, long, human life and how Bill ultimately chooses to die of old age rather than resume her ‘puddle’ form and return to the stars, even as she urged Heather to go without her. The faint hypocrisy of this isn’t touched upon, but it’s very human. The deeper, broader question of Bill’s existence – something the TV episode has time to little more than nod at – gets intelligently examined too. The Doctor connecting the concept of Testimony to growing up with the everyday reality of the Matrix on Gallifrey seems obvious in retrospect, as does that informing his opinion on whether such digital ghosts are actually the person involved, or simply an extremely detailed diary left behind by them.

All in all, Cornell has constructed a novelization which adds a new dimension of tenderness and emotion relative to the time and space of the original. A fine example of a Target which doesn’t so much overwrite, or compete with, the televised version in your mind, but rather adds additional layers of quality and grace to it.

As an audiobook, Cornell’s efforts are assisted hugely by Mark Gatiss. Himself no stranger to reading the Target range as a child, he knows exactly what’s required and turns in a touching, sensitive reading of the material. Not only are his Doctors note perfect in their voices (interestingly, he’s definitely decided to channel Bradley rather than Hartnell for his First Doctor) but he invests them with a sense of performance and character beyond the voice that truly captures their personalities.

Gatiss’ own persona also meshes smoothly with the tone required by the text. At times you can almost picture him in a comfortable antique leather chair, relating a diverting anecdote he thinks might amuse you. At others, his dropped voice and quiet control effortlessly communicates the pathos of a moment. All of the audiobooks in this series have selected appropriate and talented readers. But Gatiss is probably the only one so far to feel like he could genuinely have read any of them.

The sound design also keeps up the high quality of the series. Unobtrusive, yet giving an appropriate sense of setting, it hits just the right balance. It’s particularly nice to get the unique, and never repeated, bloops and whirrs of the console going crazy during the First Doctor’s regeneration faithfully presented her. One tiny niggle though is when the polar winds continue to blow in your earphones even when time stops still – which did prompt a little Bradleyesque “Oh, surely not? That can’t be right, can it, hmm?” from this listener that momentarily took me out of the action. But when that’s the worst criticism one can make of a three-hour recording…

This is the final of the current set of new Target novelizations and it’s fitting that they’ve proven just how varied the original range was, and just what their readers loved about them. We’ve had Jenny Colgan’s deeply traditional Dicksian take, and RTD’s version which took cues from both David Whittaker and Ian Marter (gleefully raiding other stories for bits and pieces, while upping the gore and violence beyond anything BBC One would have allowed at 7pm on a Saturday). We’ve had Steven Moffat’s wildly experimental take which doesn’t so much expand on the original but treats the TV episode as a kind of Serving Suggestion for where the story could go. And now Paul Cornell’s fine novel which manages the trick of adding massively to the inner lives of the characters while altering the actual events hardly a line.

Here’s to the next batch (“The Unquiet Dead by Mark Gatiss” anyone?)