Image Credit: Stephen Brennan – All Rights Reserved
Image Description: The first four Timewyrm books in a TARDIS-shaped cupboard
By James Ashworth
When Survival saw the end of the TV series for a good 26 years, Doctor Who entered what is known as the wilderness years. Two years in, Virgin stepped up to the plate, promising a range of novels, the New Adventures, which would provide stories that were “stories too broad and too deep for the small screen.” Beginning this range was a 4 part arc, the Timewyrm saga, featuring the Doctor and Ace battling the titular villain across time and space. With the release of Bookwyrm, and the 30th anniversary of Doctor Who going off the air, I thought it was time to take a look back at these novels. Here’s what I thought:
The first of the New Adventures, Timewyrm Genesys kicks off the series by being… solidly fine. There’s nothing to this story that’s particularly inspirational, and the whole thing comes off as a bit derivative. Inspired by the epic of Gilgamesh, which is already quite heavy going to start with, the Doctor’s first major villain was not the titular Timewyrm, but the dastardly Tabloids! The News of the World declared that “Dr Who’s Too Blue”, and that the Timelord is “cowering under his scarf in shame.” This manages to skip over the fact that ancient Babylon, and mentions of teenage prostitutes, while a bit off-putting and certainly overused, are by no means something that can be used to attack the novel. What can be used, however, is the sheer amount of references, and associated continuity, that the novel contains. Indeed, it features one of the most blatant pieces of exposition in any medium, with The Doctor ‘accidentally’ wiping Ace’s memory so he can spoon feed a brief history of the show to you in great detail. Presumably, someone at Virgin assumed that they’d be getting readers who’d never watched the series, which was always going to be a tad optimistic. All the same, there are better ways of introducing the Doctor than this. Perhaps this playing around with their memories (The Doctor regresses to a former incarnation at one point, for the most dubious of reasons) explains why their characters are somewhat generic, with not quite all the fire of the characters who walked off into the sunset after Survival. It’s by no means the most exciting Doctor Who novel, but it’s a solid base to be getting on with.
If you’ve seen the front cover, you’ll already know what direction Exodus is heading in. To say The Man in the High Castle is something of an inspiration is an understatement, with the novel putting a British spin on the events of Philip K Dick’s novel. Of course, this being a Doctor Who novel, Ace and The Doctor need to get involved, which is where opinions are going to diverge. Indeed, some reviewers on the Doctor Who Review Guide give it plaudits such as “100/100,” and “undeniably superb,” while others criticise it as “badly misguided,” and “total rubbish.” Really, it all depends on whether you can accept the concept of aliens being behind the Nazis’ rise to power, or if you feel that this obscures the fact that human beings are more than capable of committing atrocities. In addition, the Doctor, as part of his deception, spends a lot of time with the Nazi elite. Indeed, I myself am still somewhat conflicted over this, but for the purposes of the review, I’ll be going along with it. Terrance Dicks has certainly got novel writing experience, and it shows; the world he creates is terrifyingly palpable. The Doctor and Ace’s characterisation also picks up a bit here, with the cunning of the former and the righteous fury of the latter on show, even if Ace does get a bit more damsel in distress work to do than normal. Perhaps this unnecessary character trait results from the overstuffed nature of the novel as a whole, which spans multiple eras, locations and villains; all while essentially missing out half the title-the Timewyrm doesn’t really feature.
In all, whether you should read this novel is best left to your own judgement. If you want a Pulp Fiction look at WW2, look no further. If you want something more nuanced, then you should probably look elsewhere.
Apocalypse also has a reputation that precedes it, with one friend describing it as “the most boring Doctor Who novel ever.” Having read it, I would indeed describe it as The Krotons, crossed with The Lie of the Land, with an added dash of Time and the Rani. Not the most promising, then. Despite that dubious lineage, it somehow manages to be perfectly readable. You won’t be blown away by it, and the Timewyrm again does a great job of not featuring, but it’s another perfectly entertaining adventure for the TARDIS crew. Being bland in places and not very original, I would’ve suspected this was the direct sequel to Genesys had I not known otherwise. It even shares the quirk of putting in a lot of unnecessary references, with the 2nd Doctor, much as I love him, cameoing for no particular reason. Logopolis also gets shoehorned into the novel in an unsubtle cameo, and given my experience of later VNAs, I’m glad they eventually stopped with this kind of thing, as it becomes oddly tiresome, rather than thrilling. To sum up, Apocalypse won’t set your hearts racing, and while there are worse options out there in the Whoniverse, it’s definitely near the bottom of the pile.
The finale of the Timewyrm arc, Revelation defies description. Like The Mind Robber on steroids, the majority of the action takes place either inside the Doctor’s head, or perhaps more strangely, within a sentient church on the moon. If this already sounds odd, don’t worry, it gets weirder! The ethereal nature of the situation leads to the return of old Doctors, cameos of former companions, and a lot of timey-wimeyness. In the wrong hands, this could’ve been a tedious mess. But instead, it’s beautiful. Musing on the nature of the Doctor, on a relatively literal trip to Hell and back again, it is full of wonderful ideas, spectacular imagery, and a ton of symbolism. In a story that features literal Nazis, its telling that the most terrifying character is Ace’s childhood bully, given extraordinary power over life and death. Unlike the other stories, it performs a deft balancing act between homage and fanwank, tying up the many plot threads that the other authors left so inconsiderately hanging. I doff my figurative hat to Paul Cornell, and recommend anyone to seek out this gem of a novel.
In all, the Timewyrm arc can best be described as like a bag of Revels. It’s full of the ones that you don’t like (looking at you, Coffee), but is interspersed by all kinds of chocolatey delights. Replace coffee with excessive continuity, and chocolatey delights with some excellent ideas; you’ll probably get the general idea! As for a recommendation, I’d personally suggest reading just Exodus and Revelation – they recap the story so far, and then you get all the good bits with none of the baggage. Unfortunately, these also happen to be the expensive ones, so a library is probably the best bet. While these novels, as a group, are not what you’d have picked to build a literary empire on, they provide tantalising hints of the stories that are to follow – and you can’t ask for more than that.