I’m doing something a little different today: instead of audios or television episodes, I’m taking a look at a Doctor Who novel. I’ve done this before, with the penultimate Virgin New Adventures novel, Lungbarrow; however, at that time, it was the only novel I had available, so I didn’t set out to make it a series of reviews. However, I’ve recently acquired a number of Doctor Who novels in ebook form, and so I’m considering giving it another try, beginning today. Of course, reading a novel takes more time and effort than watching an episode or listening to an audio drama; and so this series will be somewhat irregular. As long as the novels are short—as today’s entry is—I may aim to complete one each week; but that’s a pretty high bar for which to aim, and it will likely not happen that way, especially as I intend to continue my other review series. Still, it should make for interesting reading.
The ebook collection includes most if not all of the Virgin New Adventures (VNA) novels, so we’ll begin with those. Today we’re looking at the first in the series: Timewyrm: Genesys, by John Peel, published in July 1991, and featuring the Seventh Doctor and Ace. The VNAs were intended to continue where the final classic serial, Survival, left off, and this story does just that, beginning sometime not long after that story.
Spoilers ahead for anyone who has not read this novel!
As novel plots tend to be longer than the equivalent audios and serials, I’ll try to be more concise, and leave out more detail, than I do in my audio and television reviews. Here, we open with a battle in space; a creature calling herself Ishtar is losing, her ship collapsing around her. She is seen to control the minds of her crew, even to the point of seeing through their eyes and directly controlling their bodies. She sacrifices them to make a final blow at the attacking ship, and escapes in a lifepod, falling to the planet below: Earth.
It’s ancient Mesopotamia, and Gilgamesh, king of Uruk, is on the hunt. He meets Ishtar, who claims to be a goddess, but lacks the power to leave the crash site of her lifepod. He rejects her call to join him, and she swears revenge.
On the TARDIS, Ace awakens with amnesia, unable to remember even her own name. The Doctor apologizes; he was using the telepathic circuits to edit his own memories, clearing out old junk, and accidentally caught her in the field. He is able to restore her memories. However, in doing so, he triggers an apparition of the Fourth Doctor, a message implanted long ago, warning him about a creature called a Timewyrm. He doesn’t remember it, but the TARDIS takes over, and takes them to Earth…where they intrude on Gilgamesh and his friend Enkidu, in battle against warriors of the rival city of Kish. As they cause the battle to end, Gilgamesh takes them for gods, and takes them along to spy on Kish. The Doctor notes odd copper patterns on the walls, and realizes something isn’t right.
Something, indeed, is not right in Kish. Ishtar, after meeting Gilgamesh, met Dumuzi, Kish’s priest of the goddess Ishtar, who accepted her offer and took her to take residence in the temple of Ishtar. (I’ll go ahead and say that Ishtar, of course, is not her real name; we’ll get that later, but she has taken the name here from Gilgamesh’s mind.) Meanwhile, the king of Kish, Agga, is feeling trapped by Ishtar; but he won’t rebel, because he fears for his city. His daughter, Ninani, has no such qualms, and enlists a priestess of Ishtar, En-Gula, to help her destroy the false goddess. The Doctor confronts Ishtar, and is captured; he learns that she controls her servants by means of implants that let her overtake their minds and bodies. Ace rescues him before he can be implanted, but her use of Nitro-9 explosives tips Ishtar off to the otherworldly nature of the intruders. She orders Agga to hasten completion of the patterns on the walls; they will constitute a radio transmitter that will let her spread her influence across the entire world. As well, she has a cobalt bomb tied to her biosignature, which will detonate and devastate the planet if she dies. She reveals that she used such a device to destroy her home planet, Anu.
The Doctor, Gilgamesh, and the others escape back to Uruk, bringing with them En-Gula and a musician named Avram. En route, they view Ishtar’s crashed pod, and Avram reveals that he has seen something like it before, in the mountains a week away. Ace secretly pockets a now-defused thermite bomb that was left as a trap on the pod. In Uruk, Gilgamesh deals with a conspiracy against him, and Avram tells the story of his visit to the mountains, and to a man named Utnapishtim. The Doctor concludes that Utnapishtim is an enemy of Ishtar—or rather, Qataka, her true name—from her own world, and may help them against her. He sends Gilgamesh and Ace on a mission to recruit Utnapishtim, while he and Enkidu and En-Gula plan a return to Kish. Ace is not thrilled; she has been busy fighting off Gilgamesh’s constant sexual advances, and doesn’t look forward to a week with him on the road.
In the mountains, they find that the Doctor was correct. Utnapishtim is the leader of a spacegoing ark, all that is left of his people—and their power source is failing, due to damage on the ship. Nevertheless, he agrees to help, and takes a pair of smaller craft to get them back to Kish quickly. He has a computer virus which should destroy Ishtar—whom, he reveals, is a cybernetic lifeform, a copy of her original humanoid form. Meanwhile, the Doctor, En-Gula, and Enkidu return to Kish, and recruit Ninani; they are captured by Agga, but released by Ninani, and they advance on the temple. Ace, Utnapishtim, Avram, and Gilgamesh arrive at the same time, as does Agga, and the battle begins. Ishtar smashes the device with the virus, but is infected anyway when she hits Ace with an implant; the device was a decoy, and the real virus has been overlaid on their minds. Knowing the bomb will go off if she dies, the Doctor takes it and Ace back to the TARDIS, and uses the telepathic circuits to dredge up the more-technically-astute Third Doctor’s personality. As the Third Doctor, he uses the implant to create a copy of Ishtar in the TARDIS circuits, then links the bomb to it, giving him time to defuse it. She infects the TARDIS, but he ejects the infected components, apparently putting an end to her.
The Doctor uses Ishtar’s technology from the temple to repair Utnapishtim’s ship, and gives him the cobalt bomb to use as a new power source. He then directs them to an uninhabited world where they can re-establish their civilization. Unfortunately, he can’t change history; the future holds more natural unhappiness for their friends in Uruk and Kish.
Back in the TARDIS, they are attacked when they enter the Vortex. Ishtar is not dead after all; she has merged with the ejected TARDIS components and become something terrible: the Timewyrm. She is free to roam time and space. The Doctor sets course after her, vowing to destroy her.
I’ve wanted for a long time to read the VNAs. I previously read and reviewed Lungbarrow, but that novel is near the end of the series, and while excellent, doesn’t really capture the range of the series. This, then, was an exciting read for me. On the downside, it assumes a lot of the reader—this is no book for beginners in Doctor Who history. While there are some brief explanations of things such as regeneration and the TARDIS, it can’t be called hand-holding; explanations are good for only the minimum necessary knowledge, and may leave a newbie with more questions than answers. (Ace’s amnesia at the beginning allows room for some explanation; the Doctor is briefly obligated to explain things to her.) As well, there is an excessive amount of references to other stories here; I’ll list some of them shortly, but here I will say that, although I personally love references and fanservice, it’s over the top here. There’s a good reason for that: as the VNAs were the only continuing legacy of the series at the time of publication, they were obligated to hit the ground running, and establish quickly that this really was the true successor to the series. We’ll find as we go on that that position is no longer really defensible, in light of the revived television series; the continuity is just too different—but at that time, this WAS Doctor Who, the only Doctor Who being produced. (To be fair, I like the view that this continuity is not invalid; it’s just different. Certainly I consider the television continuity to be of first importance, the “flagship”, as it were; but this is a perfectly good alternate version.)
We couldn’t do better than to kick off the series with the Seventh Doctor and Ace. This duo is one of my favorites, and they’re just as good here as they are on television. Of course, it’s not all smooth sailing; they have some very vocal arguments. Ace is growing up, to be honest, and she’s not as willing to take the Doctor’s word for things as she was in her earliest appearances. The book contains a number of sexual references, establishing it (as was pitched at the time) as “too broad and deep for the small screen”. It’s not a bad move, as long as it doesn’t get too far from the source material. Here, it mostly takes the form of a very sexually aggressive Gilgamesh (he frequently hits on Ace, as well as other women), and a priestess who is in reality a temple prostitute, frequently with breasts bared. Still, it’s the sort of thing that could easily be adjusted for television, should the need ever arise; it almost seems as though it was written with that possibility in mind, should the series have been revived during the Seventh Doctor’s time. The Doctor gets a great line here, which sums up his entire philosophy of interaction with the universe: “It’s not just the TARDIS that has relative dimensions, Ace, but the societies that we visit too.” He elaborates when he says “I’m not supposed to interfere with [this society’s] natural development. Unnatural development, on the other hand, is a different bucket of fish”—in explaining why he is willing to combat Ishtar, but not to change the societal norms. It gives perspective to the Doctor’s approach to interference in many stories. He also talks about clearing out old memories, as his mind contains too many; but he begins to rethink it when he finds it necessary to call up the Third Doctor’s personality. Reading that scene was bizarre; it was well-written for the Third Doctor, and it was hard not to picture him in the TARDIS.
The locals are interesting to me. Gilgamesh, of historical epic fame (his well-known epic is mentioned as being written by the songwriter Avram), is a barbarian, to be blunt; but despite being a stock character, he’s very entertaining, more so when put up against Ace. Enkidu is a Neanderthal, the last of his kind (as far as he knows; the Doctor and Ace mention the Neanderthal seen in Ghost Light), but very well-spoken and thoughtful, subverting the caveman trope a bit. En-Gula may be a prostitute, but she’s very matter-of-fact about it, and is of a broader mind than even the other characters expect. Agga and Ninani are perhaps the most boring of the bunch; but their family drama is crucial to moving the story along. Utnapishtim, while not a local, was an unexpected twist; he’s essentially a businessman thrust into the role of captain of the ark. As such he’s quiet, unassuming, and tortured by what he thinks he must do to save his people—that is, displace the more primitive humans and take their planet. I was glad to see him get another way out, and I hope we’ll see him again. (Of course, the implication here is that his story is the inspiration for the Gilgamesh epic’s ark story, and by extension the biblical version.)
Ishtar is an exciting villain at this point. She may be a stock character of sorts; but she’s honest about it. She doesn’t have grand aspirations or motivations; she just wants to rule, and to inflict pain on as many people as possible. She may be insane, but she’s methodical and determined. While I knew that this was the beginning of a story arc, and therefore she will return in the next book, the transformation at the end into the Timewyrm was still unexpected and well done. She brings out a determined and fatalistic side of the Doctor that we rarely see, even with the scheming Seventh Doctor; he is more than willing to destroy himself and Ace to stop Ishtar.
References: There are many, and I may not get them all here. The Doctor mentions past companions Sara Kingdom, Katarina, and Adric, and regrets their deaths; the TARDIS even manifests images of Sara and Katarina. The Fourth Doctor appears in hologram form, which was implanted just after The Invasion of Time. The Third Doctor is briefly resurrected in the Seventh Doctor’s body, and calls others by the names of his past companions. The Doctor and Ishtar mention Chronovores living in the void (The Time Monster). Ace makes mention of several onscreen adventures (Silver Nemesis, The Greatest Show in the Galaxy, Dragonfire, Battlefield, The Curse of Fenric), and is still feeling some residual effect from the cheetah virus (Survival). The Doctor last used the time path indicator in The Daleks’ Masterplan. He mentions K’anpo Rimpoche, last seen in Planet of the Spiders, but mentioned in other stories. He says that the cloister bell last sounded during the events of Logopolis, though this is incorrect; it sounded in Castrovalva, The Mutant Phase (which admittedly doesn’t exist in Big Finish form at the time of writing), and Resurrection of the Daleks. He claims never to have been to Alaska, although Big Finish’s The Land of the Dead would contradict this; perhaps that memory was erased.
Overall, it’s a great start to the VNAs. It contains something for everyone: Fanservice, mature themes, multiple Doctors (sort of), historical events, science-fiction elements, and of course, Seven and Ace. While it may occasionally try too hard, it’s forgiveable here; and we’ll see more to come in the next few novels.
Next time: We’ll continue with Timewyrm: Exodus, by classic Who author Terrance Dicks! See you there.