All kinds of futures, all kinds of pasts – The Time Travellers by Simon Guerrier reviewed

Image Credit: Alberto Pascual (CC BY-SA 3.0Wikimedia Commons)

Image Description: Battersea Power Station – a landmark of the future?

By Matthew Kilburn

The Time Travellers by Simon Guerrier was the penultimate book in BBC Books’ Past Doctor Adventures range, appearing in November 2005. It’s a First Doctor story, faithful to the original regular characters of Doctor Who, while interrogating the substance of what was the series’ stated theory of time travel in 1964. It’s also very aware that Doctor Who’s initial present-day setting had by 2005 receded very firmly into the historical past. It tips its hat to the first television story to acknowledge that – 1988’s Remembrance of the Daleks – while exploring early twentieth-century anxieties about public-private urban spaces and the more specific worry over whether television Doctor Who in 2005 could still be something its devotees would recognise.

Guerrier opens with two disorienting blows: Barbara Wright’s mother meeting a decrepit Ian Chesterton several years after he and Barbara disappeared from London in 1963; and the TARDIS crew of 1964 arriving in a deserted London of future times, that future being a Canary Wharf station recognisable to the London Underground travellers of the first decade of the twenty-first century. Both mislead. The history of the Ian met in the opening scenes is not entirely that which we might expect, but it will take a long time for the reader to learn this. If said reader finds any enjoyment in the incongruity of Ian and Barbara puzzling out what might, at first, appear to be the still-newish Jubilee Line Extension, then that is also cut short much sooner. 

Guerrier’s London is a city under fire and on the verge of military collapse; the horses of social and economic meltdown have ridden on ahead. There are deliberate associations with The Dalek Invasion of Earth (1964), which the TARDIS travellers have yet to experience. Battersea Power Station stands while other landmarks do not. As most of the readership must know, human beings can lead themselves into wars of extermination without needing Daleks. 

Part of what makes The Time Travellers feel authentic when its story and structure are so far from the Doctor Who of 1963/64 is that it draws deep from the well of despair plumbed by the series’ earliest writers. There are times in those early Doctor Who stories where all seems very much lost, where the travellers are separated from each other and the TARDIS without apparent hope. There are many such incidents in this book and a sense that the consequences will be terrible. At one point the Ship (as it is called here, true to practice in David Whitaker’s story editorship) is well and truly placed beyond reach. However, control of events is reclaimed, and characters redeemed, through efforts at open-minded kindness similar to those in 100,000BC (1963; better-known perhaps as An Unearthly Child). 

Fitting for a novel written as the first new series of Doctor Who in over fifteen years was in production, The Time Travellers is a book about the Doctor’s absence. This is ironic as the Doctor is so much of a presence in the book – Barbara is shocked at how heavy he is when he falls against her at a frail moment, and this contrast emphasises the tricksiness present throughout, a cunning focused on survival and the protection of his granddaughter, but with wider concerns too. He’s a great actor, building deflective personas from the slightest hints of assumptions made by dangerous people. He is also worried about time and gradually reveals to Barbara that he wasn’t quite truthful about the impossibility of changing history in The Aztecs (1964). The reconciliation of the Doctor’s stance in The Aztecs with later history-altering potentials – gleefully detailed as early as The Time Meddler (1965) – is one which was already the stuff of casual fan discussion by 2005. It’s developed admirably here, with the Doctor delivering lectures and drawing a diagram for an impromptu classroom in a manner one can visualize William Hartnell having enjoyed. The Doctor also shares moments of private revelation with Barbara which offer insight into how transgressive his and Susan’s journeys in the TARDIS are without adding any details about Time Lords and Gallifrey which would feel anachronistic. Reading now, after over a decade of Doctor Who formed by the Time War, there’s a sense that Simon Guerrier anticipated the chaos of Russell T Davies’s vision, and keeps the narrative teetering on that brink while occasionally toppling over into worldview-shattering consequences. 

The consequences of the Doctor failing to intervene in human affairs are bleak. The Doctor, Susan, Ian and Barbara find themselves dealing with an England permanently damaged by takeover by a computer some decades before (never named in the text, but presumably WOTAN from The War Machines (1966). Those whose minds were possessed by the computer suffer from a form of dementia and wander the streets for decades because the authorities can’t cope, one of many causes of endemic ‘vagrancy’ which is suppressed rather than alleviated. The self-styled liberators in the South African army seem at first to represent multiracial harmony, but their hideously destructive weapons tell a different story. Obtained from deals made with machine people who have settled at the South Pole (whose relationship with the Cybermen of The Tenth Planet [1966] can only be speculated upon), the weapons make one wonder about the physical strength and regular features of their ground troops and whether there is something sinister about the utopia they represent. The whiteness of England is noted, and it’s the result of overt expulsions and covert murders. There are a good few bullets to the head in this book, which I doubt would get past latter day Doctor Who brand managers. Yet, this is still a Doctor Who with an optimistic note. Not every branch of possibility can be saved, but at least one better world is brought into being and one of Doctor Who’s touchstone moments – even before the 2018 Twitch marathon – upheld and developed appropriately for the characters concerned.

Those worried about Canary Wharf as one of many private fiefdoms masquerading as public spaces will not be surprised to see it realised here as a military zone. At around the time it was published, television Doctor Who was recording its own vision of the tower as the base of an embattled woman leader, though Louise Bamford and Army of Ghosts/Doomsday’s Yvonne Hartman are of different stamps. Those worried about the authenticity of different forms of Doctor Who in 2005, and after, might consider Barbara’s anxieties following her reunion with Ian at one point in this story, and how she comes to terms with her feelings and her mistake. Circumstances reveal different aspects of people we thought we knew well, and that is always the same for collaborative works of fiction such as Doctor Who. There is no single authoritative guardianship of the text as it weaves and fragments and re-coalesces throughout different media and changing historical contexts.

The Time Travellers sees the Doctor and friends escape their plight with some good old-fashioned engineering of the sort which would have made Sydney Newman proud, while flashing forward to a glimpse of a future for Ian and Barbara which readers would surely welcome. Yet it criss-crosses causalities in a way which must have had Steven Moffat taking notes, and hints at moving textual foundations. Whose TARDIS travellers are these? Those of their 1963 television debut, or their first 1964 appearance in print, fog on Barnes Common and all? The Time Travellers hints at other unknowable pasts. Were BBC Books to reprint this book, it would have a ready audience in these post-Timeless Children days; its First Doctor and our Thirteenth Doctor might have much to say to one another.

Tides 47 is, at time of publication, available to buy through this link

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