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?)

 





The Day of the Doctor (BBC Audio)Bookmark and Share

Thursday, 2 August 2018 - Reviewed by Peter Nolan
The Day of the Doctor (Credit: BBC Audio)
Written by: Steven Moffat
Read by: Nicholas Briggs
Cover by: Anthony Dry
Duration: 7hrs 26mins
Publisher: BBC Audio
Originally Released June 2018

There’s a common conception that anywhere there’s a big ‘grown-up’ awards ceremony, there’s a room full of snobs instinctively looking down on anything in the science fiction or fantasy genre. That’s not entirely accurate. After all, Kazou Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go was shortlisted for a Booker Prize and that’s about the discomfiting life experience of being a clone grown for spare parts. Post-apocalyptic novels The Road and The Handmaid’s Tale were both nominated too. Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie is about a telepath discovering that all children born in the same one hour period in human history all have superpowers and it actually won the Booker.

Yet, tellingly, all those books are the subjects of hotly debated discussion about whether they’re SF at all. Essentially on the basis of being too good to be SF. Rushdie’s novel has been deemed “magical realism” whatever that means. But all in all, the key thing seems to be that a science fiction novel can be seen as Great Literature (with the capitals audibly intoned) so long as there’s wiggle room to pretend it’s not science fiction at all.

So what chance a Target novelization of an hour-long fiftieth birthday party for the children’s science fiction show that adults adore?

Well, quite.

Which is a crushing shame, because what Steven Moffat has created here is very far from being ‘just’ what fans voted the best ever episode of Doctor Who with a few extra “he saids” added to each page. It’s not even just a playful, engaging and fiercely intelligent science fiction. It’s not even a book which rollerskates backward past the time travel shenanigans of the average Hollywood blockbuster while making encouraging noises as one might at a small child that had made a tower a whole six blocks high. No, The Day of the Doctor is proper Literature. I mean, it’s got not one unreliable narrator but four (at least; I may have miscounted – there is a Time War on) and they all turn out to be the same unreliable narrator. Maybe. It doesn’t get much more Literature than that, frankly.

The great bedrock on which the whole novel rests – the one which presumably gave Moffat sleepless nights during the planning stages as he pondered how it was either going to work beautifully or else be an unreadable mess – is the conceit that it’s written in the third person by the Doctor, except when it’s not. And that the Doctor is simply ‘the Doctor’ at all times, no matter the point in his life, yet you’re never in any doubt about which face he’s talking out of, even when the Doctor is talking to the Doctor. Unless it’s cleverer, more telling or more fun for you to not know.

It does work beautifully, by the way, and is matched by a plot progression that’s not simply clever for cleverness own sake (but it really is very clever indeed) but by approaching the story from the angle that reveals the Doctor’s hearts layer by layer and exposes who he is and who the Doctor is, and how that’s both the same thing even when he insists it’s not, with scalpel-like precision. There have been many Targets that improve and expand upon their original television script. This is probably the first one that feels like it’s been forensically dismantled, checked over, had half its bits chucked aside and then rebuilt into a shiny new version of itself, held together with new custom-made parts. It looks about as much like a prose version of the TV episode as a ‘deconstructed seared pancetta with toasted brioche’ looks like a fried bacon sarnie in a Masterchef final.

The only misstep is perhaps the infamous Chapter 9 (they’ve had complaints). Not only does it indulge in all the worst kinds of fan service (the words ‘Looms’ and ‘River Song’ should be kept at 500 feet’s distance from each other at all times) but you need to wear a special eyepatch to even remember having read it. Which is a bit much.

As an audiobook, it’s hard to imagine any reader other than Nicholas Briggs making it work quite so well. Briggs hasn’t. as you might have been expected been hired for his skills with a vocoder. As part of Moffat’s stripping back everything unneeded in his exploration of what it feels like to the be the Doctor, and to be haunted by the gap between that ideal and the reality, the Daleks are reduced to a single line of dialogue – and that’s a flashback to an entirely different story. Briggs also doesn’t try to do impersonations of any of the cast, though his Tennant is surprisingly good. Instead, he more than gets enough of the gist of them across that even the scenes most bewilderingly full of crosstalk by the same man three times over always make perfect sense. Only once in the whole experience does it feel slightly off – in a cameo delivered as a Northerner all the better equipped to hear you, when surely the Doctor’s vocal cords were in an attack eyebrowed Scotsman at the time.

Speaking of Scotsmen, though there’s no Paisley tones in evidence Briggs’ narration perfectly captures a certain conversational style, dryly witty and with dark eyebrows audibly undecided between frowning mock-furiously and arching ironically, familiar to anyone who’s ever watched a Doctor Who Behind the Scenes video. It creates a surprisingly intimate feel in contrast to all the epic action and deep emotion of the text and adds hugely to the democratic sense of ‘all fans together’ enjoying this insane thing we love.

The Day of the Doctor might never take its place on ‘M’ bookshelves in the Literature section adjacent to Ian McEwan’s story about a guy bumping off his wife by folding her into a pocket dimension and David Mitchell’s multiple dystopian futures. And all those other 'too good to be SF' books. But it sits on ours. And that’s enough.

 





Mawdryn Undead (BBC Audiobook)Bookmark and Share

Wednesday, 1 August 2018 - Reviewed by Ken Scheck
Doctor Who: Mawdryn Undead (Credit: BBC Audio)
Written by Peter Grimwade
Read By David Collings

Released by BBC Worldwide - July 2018
Available from Amazon UK 

I've always rather liked Season 20's Black Guardian Trilogy...not necessarily because of the Black Guardian, but I felt each story was rather good in spite of their interconnected storyline. In actuality, Mawdryn Undead was probably my least favorite of the three, though in this new audiobook context, I found I enjoyed the story better.  I'm sure the ugly design of Mawdryn and the lame 80s flashy redesign of the Black Guardian hurt my enjoyment, so maybe having those taken out of the equation helped my enjoyment factor just a bit. 

The story doesn't have too much meat on it, but I did find elements of the story were better presented in book form.  I felt I had a better grasp on Turlough as a character then I ever really did throughout the show, particularly in his early days as a pawn of the Guardian. We get more in depth as to what drives him, and how he feels about the whole deal he struck with the Guardian.  That is the kind of stuff a novel can do better than a TV series, particularly a series of this era.  On the show, Turlough seemed like a slightly conflicted jerk who I warmed up to after the Guardian left the picture.  In this book, I like him earlier on, because I felt he his conflict is better explored. 

The storyline with the two Brigadiers and the Blinovitch Limitation Effect, and the wacky time travel mechanics are pretty interesting, and feel like a precursor to the eventual Moffat/Smith Era of the show.  I still think that this stuff could have been better expanded upon, but the book gets into the gritty of it better than the show did.  Or my memory of the original TV version is just fuzzy.  I remember being slightly underwhelmed by this when watching it, but it has been so long since I have, it could just be that I am misremembering the whole thing.

The audiobook is nicely read by David Collings, and while unabridged only runs about 4 hours.  Easy listening for Classic Who fans.  Not the best story of the show's long history, but fans can not complain about this presentation. 





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.





The Day of the Doctor (BBC Books)Bookmark and Share

Monday, 11 June 2018 - Reviewed by Stephen Blenkinsop
The Day of the Doctor (Credit: BBC Books)
Author: Steven Moffat
Publisher: BBC Books
Released: April 2018
Paperback: 232 pages

The 11th Doctor’s entry into the Target books range sees Steven Moffat novelise his 50th-anniversary celebration with two closely intertwined plots in a timey-wimey multi-Doctor tale.  The first plot strand sees the Doctor joining forces with his previous incarnation and the recently introduced War Doctor to thwart the Zygons who, having found themselves in Elizabethan England, hatch a plot to take over the Earth in the future.  However, the second plot strand which sees the Doctor confront his role in ending the Time War is more significant, addressing a major theme running throughout the series since its return in 2005.  This is arguably given even more weight in this novelisation than in the televised version, exploring the pain arising from his actions in a more personal way.  In revisiting the response of his Ninth incarnation at the end of The Parting of the Ways however, this book makes the point that the choice the Doctor faced here is the same impossible choice he has faced on many occasions.

This is the longest of this new batch of novelisations, perhaps understandably given the extended running length of the TV episode and the multiple plot lines, but also given that it covers the brief prequel, ‘the Night of the Doctor’.  Add to these the addition of new material and this feels a more substantial novel than the other recent releases in this range.  It also has a very different feel to it, demonstrating the versatility of earlier entries into the Target range.  Here, each chapter is written from the perspective of a different character, often in the first person, making each one feel fresh while challenging the reader to work out the identity of the author.  This story-telling device is put to particularly good effect when recounting the Doctor’s journey to the Tower from the perspective of each of his incarnations in turn – a journey his later incarnations have obviously experienced before.  It also allows for the injection of some humour at the expense of the Doctor and other characters, the former being variously identified as Bow Tie, Daddy’s Suit, Pinstripe, Grumpy, and Neckwear.  (As a side point, reference to the Tenth Doctor’s ‘tight suit’ would surely become a standard Target description of this Doctor should the range be extended, much like the Fifth Doctor’s “pleasant, open face”).  Each chapter is also preceded by a communication to readers from the narrator, an archivist who seems to be piecing together events in the story.  For me, the style of these interludes seemed very similar to those of Moffat’s DWM Production Notes.  I anticipate that this may grate with some readers and might be expected to interrupt the flow of the story, but for me these did make for refreshing breaks and a lightening of the mood in some of the book’s more serious moments.

Moffat also takes the chance to add to his original story, the most notable addition being that of a small but not insignificant role for River Song, perhaps understandable as one of his most significant character creations.  There is also an extended description of the Doctor’s integration in the Court of Queen Elizabeth and, of course, reference to Chapter 9 which claims to resolve so many of the show’s big questions and controversies is a typical example of Moffat playfulness.  He has further fun with the first two Doctors here being identified as colour blind and the Doctor also refers to the Peter Cushing Dr Who films and is even reported to be consulting with Cushing on a third film.

As one would expect from an anniversary story there is lots of fan-pleasing continuity with references to the great and the good from the show’s past, including Ian and Barbara, The Brigadier, Sarah Jane Smith and Susan.  The grand finale still sees all the Doctor’s incarnations join forces though here it is in a somewhat different manner to the TV episode and a significant addition comes right at the end of the book with a brief postscript featuring the thirteenth Doctor.  And as with many Target novelisations this one also takes the opportunity to extend the roles and significance of supporting characters - here Queen Elizabeth and McGillop are the main beneficiaries.  The absence of the Daleks is though more apparent in this book.  Although they are an important part of the backdrop to the story in terms of the Time War – without the impact of their on-screen cameos they are effectively absent here.

This novel then has more serious undertones than the first two additions to the Target range but is not without its moments of humour, which, as in past multi-Doctor stories are principally in the interactions between the various incarnations of the main character.  It is a book written very much with fans of the series at its heart, but going beyond the continuity this is never clearer than the beautiful moment when the War Doctor promises that whoever hears the wheezing, groaning sound of the TARDIS will know that they are not alone.  While this is of immediate significance to the Doctor in the context of the story, this is surely also speaking to the fans and their relationship with the Doctor.  The Day of the Doctor immediately soared to the top of the DWM poll of TV stories and I’m sure this novelisation will be held in similarly high regard.





The Christmas Invasion (BBC Books)Bookmark and Share

Sunday, 20 May 2018 - Reviewed by Stephen Blenkinsop
The Christmas Invasion (Credit: BBC Books)
Author: Jenny T Colgan
Publisher: BBC Books
Released: April 2018
Paperback: 169 pages

As the second book in the range of new series novelisations (at least in terms of the broadcast chronology) The Christmas Invasion, by Jenny T Colgan, marks the start of the Tenth Doctor’s era.  As such it is a logical choice even though there are arguably many more popular stories from this period, although for me this remained the best Christmas episode for many years until some of the more recent contributions.

This novelisation is a faithful retelling of the broadcast episode with fewer deviations or additional contributions than the novelisation of Rose.  The theme of the story is as much about the Doctor and Rose both coming to terms with the former’s regeneration as it is with battling the Sycorax invasion.  There is a therefore more emphasis on the strength of the relationship that has built up between the Doctor and Rose (and how it is affected by the Doctor’s regeneration) which is explored more explicitly, but there is also a little more background to the Guinevere One team and their relationships.  There’s also rather less continuity here than in the novelisation of Rose although John Lumic, who will crop up in the not too distant future gets a mention, as does the Brigadier.  There are also obvious references to the previous TV episode and with the Doctor’s first encounter with the Slitheen when he last encountered the Member of Parliament for Flydale North, now Prime Minister.

Jenny T Colgan clearly relishes the chance to highlight the threat in this story - the horror of the population literally standing on a precipice around the world is darker here and the shock of those watching their loved ones on the brink is more apparent.  Meanwhile, although he features comparatively little in this story, the energy and enthusiasm of the Tenth Doctor is captured on the page and by the end of the story when he finally “arrives”, that spirit of excitement and the feeling that the show was on the verge of something great really leaps form the page.  She also has fun with the idea that the world of Douglas Adams’ Hitchhikers Guide could be part of the Doctor Who canon (not for the first time in the show’s history).  The book also features some nice attention to the detail of the era here that serves to date the episode but also frighteningly to remind us of the passing of time since the episode aired - see Mickey connect to the internet using a dial-up connection on a laptop with 512Mb of RAM!

Overall this story is written with a light touch that perfectly evokes the episode and its central characters and won’t leave you feeling as if you’ve overindulged on Christmas pudding.  To top it off, some wonderful chapter titles themed around Christmas songs, a rather touching author’s afterword and another excellent cover by Anthony Dry are the icing on this particular Christmas cake!