...a blog by Richard Flowers

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Day 2477: DOCTOR WHO: The Last Dodo


Everything has gotten MUDDLED UP this week, thanks to the big shock on Monday. So I have stuck Daddy's weekly Doctor Who nonsense up here.

Daddy Richard and Daddy Alex were ACTUALLY out on the town tonight – Happy Birthday to Mr David! – doing the dosie-doe and putting the lives of other dancers at risk! Amazingly they avoided tripping over any of the small children and so incurred NO time penalties.

I stayed safe sat at the side reading this book, but I will let Daddy Richard tell you about it…
I have, in the past, expressed some reservations about Jac Rayner and in particular her one-tone writing style, finding "wryly amused" to be an uncomfortable fit in situations of death and calamity. So it was with the usual cliché of trepidation that I approached her latest book for the BBC's continuing Doctor Who range.

Okay, I was wrong. "The Last Dodo" is a terrific read, and Jac manages to capture Martha Jones to a tee. The chapters are split between a first person account in Martha's voice and a third person narration that usually takes over halfway in. It shouldn't work, but it does. The first person parts read very much like a diary, quickly updated between the action scenes, and then cutting back to the action "live" reinforces this.

Wonder mixed with sarcasm – oh, all right, quite often wryly amused – is Martha's character and she really comes to life in this book. (This makes it either particularly good news that Freema Agyeman, Martha herself, is the narrator for the audiobook version, or particularly unlucky that she isn't going to be bringing her own quality performance to help realise the Martha in the other two books.)

It's a very well pitched story too. Martha, mortified at the Doctor's negative response to the idea of a zoo – and subsequently, a rare insight into the Doctor's point of view explains this with reference to his own incarceration on Earth – asks to be taken to see a dodo free in the wild. So obviously the TARDIS takes them to the ultimate zoo: the Museum of the Last Ones, where curator Eve and her teams gather the last example of every species from every planet and put them, suspended in stasis, on display.

Those who are quick-witted or readers of the back cover blurb will spot an obvious plot development at this point.

The opening chapters quickly fall into a jolly detective story, as the Doctor and Martha – in the most traditional way possible – are captured, accused of robbing the Museum, and quickly convince the staff that they are in fact undercover detectives sent to help. The action is very rapidly paced as we are introduced to, in quick succession, Eve's little helpers the "Earthers" (humanoid enough to pass as human but obviously not natives of Terra), and then a string of variously wicked and/or misguided people who have been buying up the unique animals stolen from among the Last Ones. Characterisation is generally limited to the two regulars, as all the "guest characters" are so reduced to ciphers that they may as well be described as scenery with dialogue. But it's all very colourful scenery and at the pace that this is going along that's exactly what you want.

In addition, each chapter ends with a page from the "I-Spyder Book of Earth" and a running total of the rare and endangered (or indeed extinct, give or take) creatures that Martha encounters over the course of the book. It makes the animals seem much more real and immediate; in fact, it makes them almost more real as characters than the people. Which may of course be the point. By setting the book maybe sixty years into the future, Jac gets to put in descriptions of several endangered as well as recently extinct species: the passenger pigeon and the black rhinoceros jostle along with the dodo within these pages. The idea is that you have to spot the creatures of Earth and score points for doing so; nine-million points and you get a certificate. The dodo is worth 800.

Of course, there is a massive cheat in order to complete the I-Spyder "game" by the end of the page count but in fact it's a rather touching one – Time Lord is counted as a native species due to several sightings of different examples. Or at least different-looking examples. The Doctor thinks this is an (understandable) error… but equally it could be telling him that he has a home after all, if only he'd realise it.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. The mystery of who is stealing the exhibit animals is in fact solved before the book is half-way over, quickly giving way to a central section that sees the Doctor himself in peril. Of course, it's the Doctor's Last of the Time Lords status that makes this place uniquely dangerous for him, and Eve finds him just irresistible. Charmingly, we get a chapter of Martha tagging along with one of the Earthers on a "usual mission" to rescue the Last of the Chinese Three-Stripe Box Turtles – it almost feels like an insight into how the Doctor and Martha spend their "normal" days, the ones between rampaging monsters and saving the universe. It's charming because the fact that the Doctor has just been sealed in stasis is telegraphed so blindingly obviously at the start and yet Martha still misses it. Ah, she's not quite Rose Tyler yet, is she.

The surprise twist is that, in fact, it doesn't take Martha long at all to rescue her companion, though unfortunately she accidentally beams all of the thought-to-be-extinct animals back to Earth in the process. Including the really very extinct ones: namely the dinosaurs.

Quick nod in passing to a nice little continuity reference to "Made of Steel" here as Martha several times reflects on her Jurassic experience and hopes not to repeat them. Oh well, better luck next time, Martha.

The book then takes a sharp left turn into an almost bizarre adventure involving rampaging sabre-toothed cats, also rampaging Megalosaurus, thousands of dodos and quite possibly the end of the world. In the midst of which, the Doctor gets to drive a fire engine, ringing the bell like a great big kid.

This is, of course, marvellous.

Whilst the plot has little or no depth and very little development, it is just bursting with colour and energy and imagination. It is joyfully filled with Martha's little observations – carrying what she thinks is the last dodo, who the Doctor has (inexplicably, to her) named Dorothea, reflecting that running away isn't so easy when you're holding a bird the size of a sheep.

It does have a deeper meaning. The Museum of the Last Ones, by its very existence, reminds us of the tragedies of evolution, and of our own unlovely hand in them. The dodo is not just a MacGuffin, it's an ironic emblem: because we remember that extinction but we forget all the rest. And the ending is moving and uplifting and still a little sad. But on the whole this is a happy book.

Timewise, apart from the aforementioned "later this century" dateline, this clearly takes place after "Made of Steel", since Martha remembers those events, but she hasn't been travelling with the Doctor for long. Martha is also described as wearing her red jacket – which causes all the same problems as in "The Infinite Quest", probably best to set it before that story and after Martha joins the TARDIS full time in "The Lazarus Experiment".

Spacewise, we never learn the location of the Museum, galaxy spanning teleports effectively making distance an irrelevance for the duration. It's a little bit naughty: Doctor Who usually tries to give the odd nod to real physics, even if it then blunders in and gets it all horribly wrong. Here, everything is just magic. But never mind because this is in many ways a fairy-tale adventure, and newfangled physics is definitely expected to take a back seat to old time natural history.

This was a good book. Not just exciting to read, but reading it makes you excited about the animals it describes – and yes, I started using the Wikipedia to look up the ones on Martha's list long before I finished reading the book. A genuine win for "inform and entertain". Excellent.

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