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?
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.