Saturday, January 9, 2016

Doctor, Doctor: Gary Russell's DOCTOR WHO: DIVIDED LOYALTIES

From the very first episode, "An Unearthly Child", the Doctor (Who) has been an enigmatic figure, about whom very little backstory has dribbled out over 50+ years. We know he's a Time Lord, a being with two hearts, at least 13 lives, and a vastly alien and nearly omniscient perspective on time and space. We've met a few of his fellow Time Lords, both of the sort who stayed behind on their home planet of Gallifrey to mind the shop and the handful of "renegades" who chose to come out and play in the rest of the universe. Of this latter group, of course, all but the Doctor are villains, and they are all generally as enigmatic in terms of back-story as he is.

Now there are some fans who hanker after every scrap of "knowledge" about the Doctor's history and upbringing and life on Gallifrey as a Time Tot and whatnot, and they would probably just love a once-and-for-all prequel/origin story all about this someday.

There are also those fans who hope this never, ever happens, who prefer the mystery, the room for speculation, the sense of sheer alien incomprehensibility that a character like the Doctor and a species like the Time Lords inherently have. I am one of this latter sort.

For those of the other sort, well, have I found the novel for you. And I wish you joy of it. For me, though... Eh.

Divided Loyalties brings the Fifth Doctor, Adric, Nyssa and Tegan face to face with one of the more enigmatic and unknowable -- and under-utilized -- Doctor Who villains: The Celestial Toymaker. It should surprise no one that he is one of my favorite Doctor Who villains (which is odd, because on the whole I don't like near-omnipotent heroes OR villains, but hey). For those not familiar with him, he is a being from a whole 'nother universe, who exercises near limitless power in this one -- he is supposed to be of a kind with the Black and White Guardians of Key to Time fame*** -- but who uses it chiefly to put lesser beings through a series of cruel and almost-but-not-quite unwinnable games in his Toyroom. Losers of his games he either enslaves or turns into doll-statues and imprisons forever as decor for said Toyroom. He dresses like a Chinese Mandarin (or at least like a British stage magician pretending to be an inscrutable Chinese Master dresses, minus the Fu Manchu facial hair and badly done stage makeup that's meant to suggest epicanthic folds to an audience who has never seen an actual Asian) and really, really hates the Doctor, who has beaten and will beat him at every encounter.

So this sounds promising as hell, right? Even if one isn't a huge fan of the Fifth Doctor, the poutingest pretty boy Doctor EVAR, I used to think, but then the Tenth Doctor came along and knocked his pouty prettiness into a cocked hat. He's still the Doctor, and so I at least like him, and here he is matching wits with the best villain, but... but...

Well, the Toymaker, aka the Guardian of Dreams, is messing with people via their dreams, dreams that play on their regrets and fears from the darkest moments of their past, on their guilty consciences, and when it's finally the Doctor's turn OH MY GOD IT GOES ON FOREEEEEEEEEEEEEVER. The middle third-or-more of this novel is just one giant (somewhat distorted, because the Toymaker is messing with things, so yeah, not all of it matches canon but get over it, nerds, the Toymaker is messing with things) dream sequence flashback to the Doctor's student days at Hogwarts the Prydon Academy and his youthful hijinks with his youthful pals in Gryffindor the Deca and remember how much I really don't like Harry Potter you guys? I don't like Harry Potter. Except for Neville Longbottom.*

Anyway, yes, it's all about the Deca, and this part is only sort of interesting in that we get glimpses of the young Master (except he's going by the name of Koschei, which name he doesn't canonically come up with until much later in his lives, but hey, Toymaker) and a young version of another fantastic but underutilized Time Lord villain, the Rani (whose real name is Ushas, which fits because that's the Vedic goddess of the dawn and "Rani" is a term for "Queeen" in Hindi)** along with young versions of pretty much other named Time Lord we've met in the TV series but it's really just interesting to see Lil' Master and Lil' Rani except no, we don't even get much of that, because it's all about the precocity of the Doctor (dur) and two other Time Cadets, Millennia and Rallon, who are destined to take on the Toymaker in their own little story and lose and...


But as I said, some of you fans who want everything explained and mapped out and whatnot are going to just love that bit.

What I wanted, though, was the Doctor and the Toymaker. Which I only kind of got.

But hey, the book does have other kind of cool things to offer. For everything except the Eternal Flashback, our point of view character is basically Tegan, a character who was never really a fan favorite but gets a bit of love here, because Russell portrays her as usually immediately regretting the rude and impatient things she's always saying, and always on the verge of apologizing and trying to make amends right before Trouble Strikes, and that makes her a lot more bearable, perhaps even likeable.

Adric, though, is still a cock. As for Nyssa, she's barely there, except when she has her own experience with the Toymaker and his torments.

But really, this is kind of Tegan's book, Eternal Flashback plot aside. For the planet the Toymaker has fashioned into his latest Doctor Trap is a populated one, and its population have a prophecy about a Chosen One who will come, and said Chosen One is Tegan. It's a nice chance for her to have a bit of her own story that, for once, doesn't involve her being possessed by the Mara (or at least it doesn't involve that very much) and does a nice job of exploring what an Earthling Companion's inner life might have been like before the modern TV series conveniently sonic'd everybody's cell phones so they could phone home from any point in time and space. I would have liked this story to have had a bit more prominence in the book, or at least get as much attention as the Eternal Flashback did. But, no.

As for my Arbitrary and Mercurial lists, here is the author list as of this book:

Alastair Reynolds
Mark Gatiss
Terrance Dicks
Jonathan Morris
Justin Richards
Gary Russell
Keith Topping

And the Doctors:


Yes! Five moved up a space, largely because he was kind of nice to Tegan in this novel. I got the impression that he was fully aware that she was trying not to be such a bitch, anyway, and that counted for something.

And yes, I wound up liking Tegan a bit more than usual this time around. She's still in the low middle of the horde, but were I tracking it more precisely, she'd probably move up a spot or two as well. Adric, though, Adric is way down there with Peri and Mel and Ian. Nyssa... I dunno how I feel about Nyssa. Big Finish has been good to her, though, so I like her a lot more than I did during her TV tenure, but she was pretty much just there because she was supposed to be there in this book.

On to a Sixth Doctor novel, now. Sixie gets all the best Big Finish stories, so my hopes are a bit high, in that I hope the prose authors are as good to him as the audio drama authors are. There is lots of overlap in these, so I feel justified in my hope. Plus, I'm that rare bird, someone who liked him in his TV run. I may even have had a bit of a crush on Colin Baker. Yes, even the coat. Dude got to have no ducks to give to rock a coat like that, and I respect that.

*Which, there is totally a Neville Longbottom figure here, Runcible the Hall Monitor, but they're way meaner to him than the Hogwarts crew ever were to Neville so there, I've found one tiny thing in the HP universe that is better than something in Doctor Who. Popqueenie is punching the air.

**Some extra fan service is to be had here, by the way, for this book has tied the Whoniverse rather explicitly to the Cthulhu mythos, via these beings. And there's a connection to Gene Wolfe, too (and I promise, I'm going to finish Suns, Suns, Suns, oh yes I am), in that Ushas is the name by which Urth comes to be known at the end of his Solar Cycle. Oh, and the chapter titles are all the names of OMD songs. Shrug.

***So really they should have gotten an Indian actress to portray her, but you know, Kate O'Mara pwned it, so that's okay.

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