Image Credit: James Ashworth – All Rights Reserved
Image Description: Arnos Vale Cemetery
By James Ashworth
With a third Doctor story, there are a few things you expect. The Dashing Hero. The Glamorous Assistant. UNIT will probably make an appearance. This novel will seek to confound your expectations by only giving you the latter of the three, and even then in an almost unrecognisable form for the majority. This novel, published in 2001, and its author, Mick Lewis, give us the Dark Horse of Third Doctor stories, particularly appropriate given its cover. Enter the 1970s, and enter punk rock…
After a brief prologue, the novel opens with a crash. A punk band is hit by a group of Exeter Uni students, and the discovery of an ancient dagger leads to the band becoming possessed by the Ragman, heading his Ragged Army. They then proceed on a series of gigs across the country, taking in Dartmoor, Glastonbury and Bristol along the way. Their music changes people, makes them hate, and so a trail of murder follows closely behind them. The Doctor sends in Jo as his agent, but she is soon under the Ragman’s spell, while the Doctor soon falls into his clutches. As even the Brigadier is corrupted, it takes the family which began it all to take on the Ragman in a battle for society and civilisation as we know it.
For fans of Terry Pratchett, this plot may seem oddly familiar. If you exclude the Ragman’s descendants, this novel reads as a dark reflection of Soul Music, published 7 years earlier in 1994. A down on their luck band finds an object of great power. Their music releases this power and this warps the people around them, leaving chaos in their wake. Meanwhile, a person of great power seeks to track them down and stop them before the power can achieve its goal. Even the concept of the band having no real name is common to both novels! With only a few alterations, and a drastic change of tone, it would be quite easy to see the Doctor and Jo exploring Ankh-Morpok, chasing after ‘The Band with Rocks in’ instead.
Perhaps the most powerful part of this novel is the atmosphere. Dark and overbearing, dank and depressing, it sucks away any levity to leave a bleak world that our heroes find themselves in. But then again, that’s exactly the point. This novel focuses on the unrest and hardship that is a key component of the history of the 1970s, perhaps reaching its climax in ‘The Winter of Discontent’. The Ragman, and the Band as an extension, preys upon the desperation and disaffection in order to win followers to its cause, while a few well placed deaths bring the Police, Nobility and even the Royal Family into disrepute, further strengthening their hand. For a Whovian, perhaps the most shocking thing is the corruption of The Brigadier, as I’ve previously mentioned. As the novel progresses, the reserved, rigid demeanour we have come to expect is well and truly broken as The Brigadier becomes a different man entirely. He becomes unrecognisible, as vehement rage spews forth against the Ragged Army, ordering all-out attack as his perception is changed to see them as a threat to the order he holds dear. Jo too is changed, her sweet innocence tainted by the influence of the Band. While she fights it, she still sells out an undercover Sergeant Benton to the Ragged Army, and only the timely intervention of a less corrupted Brigadier can save him. Benton, receiving a knock on the head for his troubles, is the only one, apart from The Doctor, who can truly appreciate the depravity of the band, and the hypocrisy of their message, equality through hate, but his reach is limited. Truly, as the 1977 song says, there are ‘no more heroes anymore’.
Unfortunately, for me, the novel does too good a job at creating this atmosphere. All the characters become thoroughly unlikeable, and getting towards the end of the novel becomes a slog through wave after wave of gore and sadness. It doesn’t help that The Doctor, normally a beacon of light and hope, is caught in The Ragman’s world for most of the final third of the novel, as the atmosphere reaches its nadir, and appears somewhat sparingly before then. While Doctor-lite stories can and have been successful, there needs to be someone to brighten things up a bit, but the only one who fits is Benton, who doesn’t feature enough either for this to work. Also, while the atmosphere may be powerful, the characterisation is also somewhat problematic. While the Ragman may be corrupting them into forms we no longer recognise, the end result are a group of characters who, to me, feel like a bunch of stereotypes rather than unique individuals, making our interest in them more dilute than it should be.
In all, if you’re looking for a different kind of 3rd Doctor story, this is the novel for you. All the familiar points of reference are swept aside, leaving a different kind of story behind. This book definitely has some interesting ideas, but it never quite reaches their full potential, giving us an experiment exploring a different side of the Pertwee era. This, coupled with the grim nature of the story, makes Rags a tough read. Give me Soul Music any day.
The rest of Tides 40 can be found online here