Saturday, June 8, 2013


Right out of the gate, Doctor Who: Harvest of Time has two things going for it: it was written by Alastair Reynolds, for whom my enthusiasm is well known by now*, and it's not just a Doctor Who novel but a Third Doctor/Jon Pertwee Doctor Who novel. Pertwee's Doctor being a fantastic (if asexual) Jerry Cornelius-type dashing 1960s action hero interpretation of the Doctor, whose performances and poise transcended his epoch's earthbound scripts and rather drab settings. And whose foils, especially Nicholas Courtney as the Brigadier and Roger Delgado as the Master**, were more than up to the task of sharing screen time with Pertwee.

But that's all just happy TV memories. How's the book?

Well, so, two questions persisted in my mind as I started reading here: how well can Alastair Reynolds do Doctor Who, being one, and, more importantly, how well can Doctor Who do Alastair Reynolds.

That Alastair Reynolds can do Doctor Who, especially the Third Doctor, becomes immediately plain. His grasp of the characters and milieu are note-perfect. All the best bits of that era are here: the Roger Delgado Master, all half-daft over-complicated schemes and the overwhelming need to brag about their infallibility (just before they fail); Jo Grant with just the right combination of pixie charm, shrewd social intelligence, and keen determination; Captain Yates and Sergeant Benton carrying their spears well and being generally good helpmeets; and Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, ever reliable as the steady, sensible if somewhat befuddled dad to the Doctor's madcap grandpa (remember, Doctor Who was originally a kids' show, so these are exactly the proper roles for these two characters to play in the viewer's/reader's imagination). There is the traditional underlying theme of the struggle between the urge to use military force and blow things up versus that to employ science and finesse to think one's way out of the problem. And yes, there is the requisite drabness of the setting -- military bases and bleak northern beaches and an offshore oil drilling platform full of big grey analogue equipment out in the North Sea. Oh, there is no doubt that Alastair Reynolds can do Doctor Who; one can see the teenybopper fanboy he once was sketching all of this out in loving detail long, long ago between cliffhangers.

Whether or not the Doctor could do Alastair Reynolds remains an open question for most of the book, however. I don't read Reynolds for confined gunmetal grey spaces and military jargon and busloads of old ladies being controlled by weird metallic crabs from outer space. I read Reynolds for vast atmospheric starscapes, cosmic ideas, staggering epic time scales, big ideas and mysterious alien artifacts of stupefying mystery and antiquity. And for cool noir-ish plots mixed in with all the astro-awe. These qualities are mostly lacking here as Reynolds romps through his childhood dream of taking charge of the Doctor and his pals.***

But note that "mostly." For the book splits into two storylines about halfway through, with the Doctor and the Master journeying into the future -- farther into the future than anyone has gone to with a time machine -- in a complicated scheme to prevent a hostile and sinister race, the Slid, from themselves accidentally preventing the very possibility of time travel. Reynolds just can't leave things like Fermi's Paradox (or whatever the time travel version of Fermi's Paradox would be) alone, can he, even when he's writing fantasy. The chapters dealing with this adventure of theirs are quite satisfyingly Reynoldsian, with an added bonus in that they spin out a new dimension to the Doctor/Master backstory.

But interspersed with this big cosmic stuff is more plodding earthbound UNIT action, in which Jo and the Brig and Yates and Benton are fighting a sort of rearguard action against the Slid on the oil rig, and these chapters are rather tiresome. Though as reminders of how it must have felt to be a Time Lord confined to earth in the 1960s they work marvelously, oh yes they do -- we want to be out in the universe with the Doctor and the Master, but no, we're stuck battling alien metallic crabs with plain old fashioned guns and bombs -- which would probably be fun, admittedly, if we didn't know what was going on Out There.

But of course, that's the essence of the Third Doctor's milieu, isn't it?

Ultimately, therefore, the answers to my two questions are "brilliantly well" and "well kind of." But the book is a hell of a lot of fun and were it the work of anyone but Reynolds I would just chalk it up as a fun bit of science-flavored fluff. But it is Reynolds, from whom I expect substantially finer stuff, and I didn't quite get it.

I look forward to his return to Reynolds doing Reynolds. As in the next Poseidon's Children book, On the Steel Breeze. Just a few more months!

*I say "for whom" rather than "for whose work" because in addition to appreciating his fiction, I find him, via Twitter and his blog, to be rather a wonderful fellow.

**As the very best Master, I should add, though I so would have enjoyed seeing Derek Jacobi continue in the role†, once he knew he was the Master and all. Le sigh.
†I would also accept his return to be a foil for this weirdo John Hurt version of the Doctor next year, whatever Hurt gets up to, because I ,Claudius, you guys.
***A dream that, let's face it, most of us share. Even I have proved incapable of resisting the allure of writing Doctor Who fiction. I'm writing, Bob help me, a novel featuring the Ninth Doctor but not Rose, thank you very much. And of course he's visiting some of my favorite long-forgotten locales and cultures from the show's deep past. I have no control over this. It's happening without my consent. When someone asks "Are you a god" you say yes. When a Doctor Who plot no one else has thought of yet comes knocking at your brain, you open the door and let our favorite Time Lord seize control of your writin' hand for a few weeks. Watch this space for details.

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