Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Doctor Doctor: George Mann's DOCTOR WHO: ENGINES OF WAR

While I'm never now, thanks to Justin Robinson, going to be able to look at the War Doctor without thinking of the kind of old man who has definitely bought alcohol for a teenager at some point in his life (it's the fauxhawk), I loves me some War Doctor. His appearances have been slight -- one and a 100th of a TV episode, some great Big Finish audio stories, and now this novel -- but he's distinctively awesome, and not just because he's portrayed by the great John Hurt.

So I went into Engines of War with a bit of trepidation, because I just wasn't going to be able to bear it if it wasn't awesome.*

I needn't have worried.

A War Doctor story that's not just going to be another Doctor Who story that happens to feature this incarnation is a tall order, if it's going to be done at all decently. Where the 50th anniversary TV special that is still the only thing most people have encountered the War Doctor in went horribly wrong was in portraying the Time War as a shooting conflict seemingly taking place on just one planet. But this is supposed to be war on an unbelievably massive scale, in which "all of time and space are burning." How the hell do you portray that?

George Mann did a better job of it than the TV writers did, at least.**

The novel opens with a terrific battle scene, in which a giant fleet of "battle TARDISes" (think of a TARDIS with guns, basically) dukes it out with a Dalek stealth fleet that has been quietly waiting to ambush anything that passes through its part of the Vortex, and actually, to a certain degree, uses those battle TARDISes as TARDISes! Meaning time travel is a bit of a factor in the skirmish. Cool.

The War Doctor is the field commander for this conflict, more or less, but in the process he takes a hit and crashes onto a planet that is... Kind of special. Modox is one of a dozen or so human-colonized worlds in a system dominated by a strange-but-beautiful space-time anomaly referred to as the Eye of Tantalus, and the Daleks wanted it very badly.

Soon our man is exploring its secrets with the help of a don't-you-dare-call-her-plucky young Dalek hunter named Cinder (who is the most badass teenage girl in the history of ever, and a more than suitable companion for him, and even tougher than he has become) and what he finds is terrifying, gross and has huge implications for the Time War.

Which means, alas, we end up spending a good chunk of the novel on Gallifrey, which you know I find a tiresome proposition at best, but there you go. Borusa, a former teacher of the Doctor's who later made an ill-advised power play and got trapped for eternity as an embellishment on the tomb of Time Lord founder Rassilon, makes his third appearance in my personal novel-reading time line (he was also in Divided Loyalties and The Eight Doctors), but at least this time he's interesting. Ish.

Look, I find the Time Lords kind of one-dimensional and tedious, and think it's a mistake to base too much of a story on their society, politics or deliberations, but I get why we had to do it, here; it's nice to actually see them through the War Doctor's eyes and see that they more than live up to the hindsight glimpses we've had of them in wartime via the Doctor's later incarnations. As this novel's tag line says, war changes everything, even the Doctor. But, well, the Time Lords don't seem all that different to me, except in that they are now talking about deploying some truly heinous weapons and wreaking destruction on a truly heinous scale. Because Delenda est Carthago the Daleks must be stopped or the whole universe yada yada.

But still no Nightmare Child, etc. Which is both smart, in that they could never live up to the build-up those things get when the Tenth Doctor rants about them on TV, but also a tiny bit disappointing.***

What does get deployed, though, is fully timey-wimey, as is the way the Doctor deals with it, which is very, very satisfying.

And so, ultimately, is this book, Gallifrey scenes aside. And even those Gallifrey scenes? Way better than those in The Day of the Doctor.

As for my Arbitrary and Mercurial rankings, they're maybe not living up to that second adjective so much, for little changes.


Alastair Reynolds
Una McCormack
Kate Orman
Mark Gatiss
James Goss
George Mann
Terrance Dicks
Gary Bulis
Mark Morris
Jonathan Morris
Justin Richards
Gary Russell
Keith Topping




Romana II
Ben and Polly

Next time: another First Doctor novel! Can Ian possibly redeem himself enough to at least move ahead of Peri in my companion rankings? Where will Susan land on this list? And what about the First Doctor, whom I always want to like but who always annoys me and lets me down? Stay tuned.

*And because author George Mann has written more Torchwood fiction than anything else. Torchwood! I mean come on, except for Children of Earth, that's just foolishness!

**I know, I know, he's got the unfair advantage that all novelists have over makers of  film and TV, an unlimited special effects budget. But still.

***Though it lets me hang on to my pet theory that that creepy and tantalizing phrase, The Nightmare Child, might actually be a reference to the Doctor in this incarnation. I thought maybe it would be a new appellation for him bestowed by the Daleks, for instance. But the one used by them in this novel is fine.

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