This review contains plot spoilers and is based on the UK edition of the ebook.
This title kicks off Puffin’s monthly series of ‘eshorts’ (or short stories available electronically), featuring the first Doctor and his granddaughter Susan. Having recently rewatched An Unearthly Child at the BFI, and also having recently read Phil Sandifer’s sharp analysis of Kim Newman’s Time and Relative novella, the first thing that struck me about Eoin Colfer’s story was how unrecognisable his first Doctor seemed to be. This rendition isn’t loath to intervene, acting like a sort of anti-hero or proto-hero (as in Newman’s pre-Unearthly Child tale). No, this version of the William Hartnell Doctor has been busy pursuing Soul Pirates through space and time in order to combat their evil ways. He’s a swashbuckling action hero trapped in an ageing body. He even sees visions of his later and more physical selves, mainly so that younger readers can be reminded that this figure is the same character played today by Matt Smith. It’s a device, a convenience, that probably wreaks havoc with Doctor Who continuity, but neither Colfer nor whoever signed off on this short story are overly concerned with capturing the spirit of 1960s Who. Instead, the Doctor is a generic do-gooder who refers to things such as Hogwarts, referencing pop culture familiar to 2013 readers.
And as if symbolic of the way that Colfer has grafted his own approach into the world of the first Doctor, the integrity of the Time Lord’s body has also been violated. He’s lost a hand – sliced off by a Soul Pirate Captain – and so has to make do with a two-fingered ceramic model housed inside an ill-gendered spare. Surely Colfer isn’t putting two literary fingers up at fans who might be dismayed by this turn of events? Although the mental image of William Hartnell’s Doctor sporting a woman’s hand, painted fingernails and all, is certainly a striking and incongruous one, it’s not quite how I expected to be thinking of the first Doctor at the beginning of this anniversary year. It’s a good gag, sure. But it's one that isn’t afraid to ride roughshod over the dignity of the Doctor. This is a full-blooded contrast to the first Doctor instalment of Destiny of the Doctor
, and each series looks set to work in very different ways for very different audiences. Destiny
is era-appropriate fan service, while this eshort strikes a vastly revisionist, irreverent tone. This is Doctor Who
’s history rewritten from a present-day perspective, enclosing younger readers in demographic now-ness rather than truly opening a window on mysterious other times.
And Doctor Who
of fifty years ago, a strange and wonderful and enigmatic thing, is further reworked here as a burst of auteurist whimsy. Yes, Colfer’s authorial voice shines through – making this part of a marketing strategy where ‘name’ authors take the Doctor in hand – but I still would’ve liked to witness more of a meeting of author and character rather than the scales being tipped very much in the writer’s favour. And some jokes (e.g. a Time Lord known as the Interior Designer) breezily transform Gallifrey into a planet of Time Morons. The Doctor himself is depicted as unsmiling, and chided about his unrelaxed state, as if readers are being warned they need to take what follows in good humour.
Without spoilering the story’s Epilogue, there is a neat twist that frames Colfer’s heightened fantasy version of Who
. H.G. Wells and his time machine have made a few appearances across Doctor Who
’s lifespan, with ‘scientifiction’ (early science fiction) being positioned as one source for the Doctor’s time-travelling adventures. Colfer takes a rather different intertextual tack, however, in line with his genre-shifting towards children's fantasy adventure, and in the end this conceit works rather beautifully. It’s a handy pay-off which bathes events in a clever, new glow. And it makes excellent use of the short story form; there can be little doubting Colfer’s skill as a writer. Indeed, he retraces Douglas Adams' fingerprints here by adding Who
as well as The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy
to his CV.
Like The Coming of the Terraphiles
before it, though, this title is more concerned with being a publishing industry ‘event’ than with addressing fandom’s notions of authenticity. In short, this simply isn’t speaking to long-term adult fans. The signal it sends, loud and clear, is that the 50th anniversary is for all sorts of audiences, and for varied generations who have become fascinated by the Doctor. It's a post-Potter first Doctor. Bill Hartnell for Generation Z. And perhaps such diversity and plurality can only be a good thing.
That said, this eshort still sticks out like a sore thumb.