...a blog by Richard Flowers

Friday, December 07, 2007

Day 2526: DOCTOR WHO: Wetworld

Saturday Wibbly-Wobbly Void Beyond Time:

This is a terrific book. The setting, Planet Sunday, is an interesting alien world that feels like a different place. The cast, colonists who have already survived one catastrophe, feel like real people with different feelings and plans. There is a mystery about the planet that is genuinely intriguing and the explanation pleasingly unexpected. And there is a monster that really feels like a threat.

The book opens with the Doctor once again landing the TARDIS in the wrong time and place and promptly ditching his ship (and Martha!) into the tentacle infested swamp.

With the image on the cover it would suggest "The Power of Kroll" even if we hadn't just got that far through the "Key to Time" boxset. Fortunately this story does everything right where Kroll got everything wrong, and no one has to paint John Abinari green to give the proceedings any dignity.

The mystery concerns the local alien species (yes, alright, strictly the humans are the aliens and the locals are the locals), dubbed "otters" with what the Doctor thinks is disgusting un-imagination. The revelation of why they appear to be getting smarter, overturning the assumptions that the humans have made all along and tying into the big threat is really very clever. The book also makes unexpected use of the TARDIS powers of translation. It does all make it hard not to think of the otters as the Pakhars that Gary Russell first came up with for "Legacy (of Peladon)". The Doctor seems never to have seen them before, though, so they can't be the same.

Exactly what the alien "tentacle'd thing" is up to, how it is doing it, and why this makes it Bad is all very well thought through as well. It's a good beastie – like a lot of this world, described in almost gleeful biological detail – combining several tropes: the lurking monster gets added to body-horror zombies and crossed with the "it came from outer space" thing. Its own self-image, of a planet held in the grip of tentacles, is both brutally poetic and also reminiscent of the old posters for the War of the Worlds TV series. The philosophy of the show is deeply ingrained here: life is not just an end in itself; it is worthwhile only for what you do with it. Whether it's the Cybermen or the Time Lords, the Doctor has always been one to say: "but what's it for?"

Mark Michalowski writes well for the Doctor, and for Martha, catching both his cheeky "I really am as clever as I think I am" charm and her insecurities. But more importantly everyone else feels like a character too.

The apparently obligatory teenager character is far more real than any of the other child characters that have been foisted on the book range so far: her opening chapter perfectly capturing frustration and resignation over her misfortunate name: Mom and Pop Kane really didn't think before naming their daughter Candice. It woos you into her world view, what she's doing here on this colony world and why she's a "loner" character who prefers going exploring to hanging around with the adults.

Then there's the charming older woman zoologist, Professor Ty Benson, the sort of woman who used to turn up every few stories for the fifth Doctor or, in the guise of Evelyn, works so well with the sixth. For much of the story she gets to be surrogate companion, hanging around with the Doctor and asking the questions, Martha having been rendered unconscious in that opening.

This feels like a real history, even though it is set in the future. The ugly compromises that the colonists have made – the Doctor's mix of joy at their adventurousness and scorn when he learns they've been using a "cheap and dirty" nuclear reactor – all feel very human, and also like they are of a part with the future history stories that we saw mainly in the Jon Pertwee era.

This is the sort of book that the Doctor Who series on television deserves. It has all the action and the emotional connection that the television version has, and you can really begin to imagine how the Mill and Millennium Effects would set to work doing the special visuals.

And there are even bad-spelling in Morse Code jokes. Who could ask for more?

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