This review contains plot spoilers and is based on the UK edition of the ebook.
The second of Puffin’s e-shorts, this story focuses on the second Doctor and Jamie McCrimmon. At times it reads rather like Lovecraft lite: Howard Phillips Lovecraft’s own short story called ‘The Nameless City’ was published in 1921 and dealt with ancient ruins sung of by the (fictional) Necronomicon's "mad poet."
The Necronomicon also makes an appearance in Michael Scott’s story, and his beaked, clawed and octopus-like monsters are reminiscent of the Cthulu Mythos. I wonder just how appropriate these Lovecraftian debts are: when the TV series threatens to become ‘too scary’ for young viewers then negative commentary never seems far away, but perhaps different rules apply to the written word rather than the visual image. In any case, readers don’t have to know Lovecraft to follow the story: it’s more a bonus layer of meaning for those who get the references.
On the whole, then, this is a deft mix of Lovecraftian elements and Doctor Who history: Jamie meets a mysterious bookseller named Professor Thascalos who is presumably a well-known character drawn from the Doctor’s past (and future), whilst Vengeance on Varos’s Zeiton-7 forms a further part of events. And the second Doctor is typically well represented via a scattering of iconic dialogue and artefacts: “ when I say run, run” gets an outing, for instance, as does the Doctor’s recorder playing.
If this anniversary series partly retools Doctor Who for today’s younger readers, another emerging pattern seems to be that these ebooks make heavy use of other fantastic literature. Last month’s title was ultimately indebted to a very famous children’s fantasy, whilst this story focuses on connections to Lovecraft’s cosmic horror, and begins in 1968 on Charing Cross Road, itself renowned for its range of second-hand and collectors’ bookshops. It’ll be intriguing to see whether this bibliophilic, bookish strand continues through later e-shorts, but such is its prominence in Eoin Colfer’s A Big Hand For The Doctor and here, it’s tempting to suppose that “include elements drawn from well-known fantasy literature” was part of Puffin’s brief to writers. Time will tell whether such a device does indeed tie the whole sequence of short stories together, or whether it’s just a first and second Doctor coincidence. (Will Charlie Higson pop up with an Ian Fleming-influenced third Doctor story? Which Doctor should be re-worked via H.G. Wells or Jules Verne?).
Michael Scott doesn't just emulate Who, he also improvises a few new tunes using the show's established elements. Particularly striking is how the Doctor looks out of the TARDIS’s Police Box windows at one point, given that unlike latter-day Doctor Who, the TARDIS of this era didn’t include Police Box doors as part of its console room set-up. And the TARDIS’s organic nature, emphasized in ‘new Who’, is also cleverly seeded into Scott’s scenario.
There’s a recurring sense that this short story wants to introduce readers to the pleasures of culture beyond television. As well as featuring Charing Cross and its bookshops, the TARDIS materializes at the back of the National Portrait Gallery, and Jamie doesn’t just muse about how big the TARDIS interior is, he wonders “how many rooms, galleries, museums and libraries” it contains. Here there may be shadowy schemes and terrifyingly powerful forces from beyond time, but there are also books and galleries and music threaded into the story’s background and foreground alike. It’s Doctor Who coded as a culturally edifying vehicle. With freaky monsters. And the Book of the Dead.
One difficulty with the short story form is that there’s relatively little space and time available to set up and resolve an epic adventure. Consequently, the Doctor’s scheme to defeat an ancient evil existing before Gallifrey is only given minor foreshadowing, and seems to emerge almost out of nowhere. Nevertheless, I can imagine the story’s ending appealing both to younger readers and to admirers of Jamie McCrimmon. And curious conclusions have a long track record in official, original Doctor Who literature, going all the way back to 1960’s Doctor Who and the Invasion from Space, where galactic invaders were foiled in a truly absurd fashion. By comparison, Michael Scott’s storytelling is far stronger, artfully weaving together Lovecraft and loved continuity, even if his finale does strike a slightly off note.
A notable improvement on January’s ebook, this feels much more like Doctor Who, and Scott’s representation of the second Doctor comes far closer to deserving the description “as seen on DVD”. However, with the appearance of Professor Thascalos, and the TARDIS apparently being stranded on Earth, there’s also a definite flavour of the following era: this is very much the second Doctor retroactively composed in the light of what’s to come. Perhaps Scott’s preferred era is really that of the third Doctor, and he just couldn’t resist smuggling in a few series-travelling tropes ahead of time. (Or may be he was expecting to write a Pertwee story, and got bumped up the schedule). But whether it’s coloured by passion or pragmatism, The Nameless City is a definite credit to Scott’s authorial name, skillfully bridging Doctor Who’s eras and offering up a smartly intertextual, atmospheric tale.