...a blog by Richard Flowers

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Day 2486: DOCTOR WHO: Wooden Heart


What with Daddy Alex being off to his local party AGM for sandwiches and gossip and, er, sneezing (and coming back with conference rep status), Daddy Richard and I have been left at home to read more Doctor Who.
After the excitement and energy of the excellent eco-fable that was "The Last Dodo", I'm afraid that this was disappointingly plodding and, well, wooden.

Martha and the Doctor discover a spaceship/station "The Castor" floating seemingly derelict in deep dark space. Investigating, they discover that not only was this a prison ship, but that everyone aboard appears to have died in sudden terror. Fairly typical Doctor Who fare. And then on the way back to the TARDIS they find themselves in a forest.

It's quite an extensive forest, surrounding a valley that contains a village and a lake with an island in the middle. The villagers, medieval rustic types represented in the main by village elder Petr and his estranged brother Saul the trapper, are plagued by the disappearances of several of their children and a doomy prophecy that if the children return it will be the end of the village. Which is actually also typical Doctor Who fare.

There ought to be some frisson of interest generated by the juxtaposition of two such traditional Who forms, but there really isn't. This ought to be a key mystery: how can something strange and wonderful – not to mention so large – be inside something so mundane and indeed small. (Well, actually "The Castor" is quite a big spaceship, but small compared to the village in its forest-shrouded valley.) Remind you of anything?

The Doctor doesn't seem very on form today. He dismisses out of hand Martha's suggested explanations (either virtual reality or they've stepped through a portal into another world), which is unusual as he's usually impressed when she uses her brains. Plus, she's essentially right: the village is artificial and it does exist in a convenient adjacent dimension.

The forest is stocked with the usual "monsters" – in fact they are the most literally "wandering monsters" yet done in Doctor Who, turning up in arbitrary fashion merely to be a threat, in fact one that can be overcome with violence. The lake too, as barrier to the "forbidden island" is inevitably full of shark-analogues, to be fought off in an attempted crossing towards the climax. The problem with these creatures – indeed with much of this world – is that they are described extensively but not in any way that strikes the visual imagination. It is all too much detail and not enough. For all their vertical jaws and insectile legs or three eyes and pug-like faces, they are still just dragon-things or shark-things. Similarly the mish-mash of architectural styles in the village or of flora in the forest, although these things are clues of a sort – that this world is put together by someone who doesn't really know how a real Earth village would look or work – they just aren't very important clues, certainly not as important as the weight the book starts off by giving them before lapsing back into treating them as "generic village" and "generic forest" and "generic monster". To be honest, it would have been much cleverer to let the reader fall into the trap of thinking of everything as a "generic", only for the Doctor to suddenly point out how unreal it actually made it all seem.

Further rudeness from the Doctor: he suggests to the locals that they're not real – or at least that they weren't half an hour ago. This develops into… well, if it was funny it would be a running joke, as all the villagers chide him for not believing in their objective reality and he keeps trying to explain that he didn't mean that they aren't real now, just that they were not there recently. His evidence suggests that their memories and history are not consistent with continuous existence.

Now you could actually make something out of that theme – do we, essentially, cease to exist when we go to sleep? That seems to be what happens to the village. The Doctor certainly takes the threat quite seriously when it occurs to him that Martha and he may find themselves back in the real universe outside "The Castor" by the several miles they have walked from where they entered the forest.

But the book just seems to lose interest in this promising thread. Similarly, early on Martha develops an ear infection that initially plays out as though it is going to be significant but is then forgotten. And the threat of the mysterious "dark angel" that appears on "the Castor" is played up heavily in the second half but ultimately goes nowhere.

Unfortunately those possible red herrings – something TARDIS-like waking and sleeping; an evolved space virus that may have killed the crew and now infected Martha (very Red Dwarf, that one) – they are more interesting than the actual explanation.

Almost perversely, the story eschews these questions and chooses to base the big climax around resolving the tension between Petr and Saul. The revelation of an adulterous affair and that Saul not Petr is the father of Petr's son Thom (who anyway is numbered among the lost children)… to be fair, there are one or two hints about this earlier but it does seriously feel as though the whole book has jumped a track.

Even more annoyingly, the whole struggle across the lake turns out to have been unnecessary, no more than a – potentially fatal – bonding exercise arranged by the local wise woman, the Dazai. You have to ask, with the village about to be annihilated, was this really the time? And since the delay means that Martha arrives at the centre just in time to meet the Doctor there, it does begin to look like padding.

In fact, what is going on turns out to be a crude "Mind of Evil" meets "Castrovalva": an interdimensional traveller has been captured by the humans and forced to try and cure criminals by sucking out their evil memories. Unable to cope with all that evil, it has created both the forest village as a kind of experiment to try and understand good and evil and also the "dark angel" creature that stalks the prison and is responsible for all the deaths.

(The Doctor's encounter with the "angel" leads to a series of mundane flashbacks to the life of murderer Ben Abbas which, once again, are less significant than they would appear. Actually, the only significance appears to be that Abbas was the last prisoner to die – maybe his memories are supposed to be nearest to the surface. But they do not inform the story, nor explain the behaviours of the "angel" or its imprisoned creator.)

The vanishing children it turns out are the creator creature's efforts to save energy – "The Castor's" drift into dark space has left it starved of the necessary power to maintain the simulation. Quite what the prophecy is meant to mean is unclear as it certainly doesn't come to pass.

And speaking of children, this book Рlike "Sting of the Zygons" Рis afflicted with a child hero character in Jude the daughter of Saul. She's a likeable enough character but really has very little to do beyond stand in for Martha in the later chapters. Even the expected clich̩ of her being the one who can get past/save the Doctor from the "dark angel" is denied to her, as both she and the Doctor ultimately just pass through the creature together to reach the ship's core.

The resolution is no more satisfactory, I fear. The Doctor persuades the interdimensional alien to continue to maintain the village, and arranges to move "The Castor" close to a star to provide the necessary power – so exactly how does he fire up the engines on a ship that is close to running out of power entirely? Or does he tow it with the TARDIS? It is a lazy sort of writing that thinks that just explaining what is going on is the same as being able to resolve it.

Similarly, the creator alien is able to restore the lost children, and keep the village going until they reach this new star, because the Dazai somehow absorbs the "dark angel", thus lifting a weight from the creator's mind… except, the Dazai, like everything and everyone in the village, is just a creation of the creator's mind, so hasn't it just moved the "evil memories" from one externalised part of its subconscious to another? Although…

The biggest question that the book raises is: are the villagers real? Martha argues that they are; the Doctor seems to think that it is more complicated than that. But then, like so many things, the book doesn't have an answer. No, it's worse than that, the book just wanders away from the question. So we don't really know, by the end, if the alien actually has created independent sentient life (in which case, isn't it basically god?) or if the villagers are just aspects of its shattered mind.

Author Martin Day has come up with a huge number of startling concepts and situations for "Wooden Heart"; in a way it is almost an achievement to have done so little with them all. A writer like Lawrence Miles would have run riot with all of this originality; what we get is pedestrian, ambling away from anything interesting and finishing with a happy ending that essentially consists of the Doctor saying, well let's have a happy ending now.
Let's finish with a joke:

Daddy: what is wrong with a car with WOODEN wheels and WOODEN body and a WOODEN engine?

Millennium: it WOULDN' go!

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