Wilfred Mott is very happy: his granddaughter, Donna, is back home, catching up with family and gossiping about her journeys, and he has just discovered a new star and had it named after him. He takes the Tenth Doctor with him to the naming ceremony. But the Doctor soon discovers something else new, and worryingly bright, in the heavens – something that is heading for Earth. It’s an ancient force from the Dark Times. And it is very, very angry.
I bought this book during Christmas because I am a big fan of Series Four of the post-2005 version of “Doctor Who”. This is all down to the dynamic of the tenth incarnation of the Doctor, as portrayed by David Tennant, and his companion of the time, Donna Noble, brilliantly portrayed by Catherine Tate.
What I was rewarded with was one of the most bang-on portrayals of “Doctor Who” in print… and one of the most sensitive. This came as no surprise to me as the book was written by Gary Russell. I mean, what Gary probably doesn’t know about the series isn’t worth writing about as he has been involved with “Doctor Who” in various forms since the 1980s – as an article writer, and later editor, of “Doctor Who Magazine”, author of “Who” novels and reference books, producer of licensed “Doctor Who” audio stories through Big Finish Productions (which he also co-founded) and script editor for the series itself.
The main plot of the story involves an alien intelligence that is seeking to take over humanity (when don’t they) through the use of astrology and technology. Without wishing to give the identity of the lead villain away (for people who haven’t read it), this is a rematch between the Doctor and this particular intelligence dating back to a four-part story featuring Tom Baker as the fourth Doctor. The author has to maintain a fine balancing act in serving two audiences – fans of both the classic and new series who will get these clues as the story develops and newer fans who will not know of the original story. As a fan of the original story, I have to say that Russell manages this.
The “B plot” of this story centres around human memory and is portrayed told in two viewpoints. The obvious viewpoint of this is Donna herself as the prologue and epilogue are set after the events of “Journey’s End” where the Doctor was forced to wipe Donna’s memory. This makes the interpretation of Donna that we see for the majority of the novel all the more poignant, something that I’ll go into later.
The second aspect of the “B plot” is signified through the viewpoint of Wilf’s friend, Henrietta “Netty” Goodhart, who he meets through his interest in astronomy. The portrayal of Alzheimer’s in any medium is one that has to be treated with sensitivity, particularly in a sci-fi context. Fortunately, Gary Russell manages to steer the story I with the appropriate degree of sensitivity and pathos which prevents the story from falling into the traps of being either too sugary or a parody. Netty is portrayed with a high degree of intellect, along with humour and a lovable eccentricity which sits alongside her television counterparts such as Amelia Ducat in “The Seeds of Doom”, Professor Rumford in ” The Stones of Blood” or Miss Hawthorn in “The Daemons”. These attributes are what makes the effects of her illness all the more cruel and the Doctor’s behaviour in the novel’s last act appear even more callous. That said, Russell never asks the reader to pity the character – in fact you admire her all the more.
The main agent for the villain of this novel is an artificial intelligence by the name of Miss Delphi. As a fan of the Classic series, I had the feeling that the author has taken the BOSS computer from the 1972 story ” The Green Death” as an inspiration for Miss Delphi. The only difference I would note is that Miss Delphi is more witty and flirty than BOSS. Readers may also feel that there’s a similarity to Miss Delphi and the AI version of The Great Intelligence that was seen in the 2013 episode “The Bells of Saint John”. (That said, this book was released a few years before ” Saint John”).
The lead protagonists are well represented throughout this book. The Doctor is recognisably David Tennant’s portrayal (apart from the fact that I don’t recall seeing his catchphrase of “Allonsy”). You get the fun and the humour of “Ten”, particularly in his interactions with Donna and Wilf, along with the underlying steel when it comes to confronting his enemies. Russell’s writing shines though when he portrays the sorrow and the apologetic nature of this incarnation, especially when there is collateral damage to the people he cares for. The fiftieth anniversary story, “The Day Of The Doctor”, calls the Tenth Doctor “The Man Who Regrets” and this is punctuated throughout this novel.
Donna Noble is unmistakably Catherine Tate in this novel. She is very much the Doctor’s best friend and she has nothing but faith in him, but she doesn’t accept his behaviour blindly and challenges him when he oversteps the mark. The author also manages to effectively portray Donna’s vocal and physical mannerisms on the page – often with these going hand in hand – and she even gets to have her own companions in the two Carnes boys. Her behaviour in this story perfectly matches Donna’s on-screen story arc as you see that she has become a better person whilst travelling with the Doctor which makes her letter in the epilogue a last twist of the knife for the reader.
I have a soft spot for the character of Wilf Mott especially as the actor who portrayed him, Bernard Cribbins, was a major part of my childhood television. Unsurprisingly, Gary Russell perfectly nails Bernard’s performance as Wilf. He loves his family and has an unshakable faith in the Doctor. That said, as with Donna, this faith never clouds his judgement as he challenges the Doctor on several occasions on the point that she is genuinely safe travelling with him, even though he knows that it’s in Donna’s best interest to travel with him. But you get a new dimension to the character in his relationship with Netty. Although he doesn’t initially state that he loves her, this is a case of an “autumn romance” and he cares for her deeply especially in the climactic third of the book.
The final TV character in this novel is Donna’s mother Sylvia, as portrayed by Jacqueline King. People who have seen Sylvia will probably recall that she could be seen as a bit of a battleaxe and somebody who no time for the Doctor and very low expectations of Donna. This story puts a bit of context into the character – primarily through setting this story on the anniversary of the death of her husband Geoff, as portrayed by Howard Attfield. Sylvia sees her role as providing focus for Donna, even though she’s already gained focus by travelling with the Doctor – much to Sylvia’s annoyance, and protecting and caring for Wilf.
This book perfectly sits within the Series Four canon and a great addition to the wider “Whoniverse” by using the principle premise when Russell T. Davies took on the role of showrunner. Yes, “Doctor Who” is a sci-fi adventure show, but it works even better when it provides a spotlight on what it means to be human.