We’re back, with our latest Doctor Who novel review! This week we continue the Virgin New Adventures (VNAs) line, with the third entry in the Timewyrm quadrology, Timewyrm: Apocalypse, by Nigel Robinson, copyright October 1991. Let’s get started!
Spoilers ahead for anyone who has not read this book!
The Seventh Doctor is having flashbacks to his second incarnation. Certain that they mean something, he nevertheless can’t figure it out. He allows the TARDIS to guide their flight, and it takes the Doctor and Ace to a planet called Kirith, billions of years in the future, near the end of the universe. (“Near” is a relative term here; there are still a few billion years remaining.) The Kirithons are a visibly perfect race, excelling in physical grace and mental prowess—but they are handicapped by their dependence on another race, called the Panjistri, who for thousands of years have been their benefactors, providing everything they need. The Doctor and Ace meet an injured young Kirithon named Raphael, and help him back to the nearby town, where they are received as guests. However, the next morning, Raphael’s injuries are gone without a trace.
The town is led by the Procurator Huldah, with his personal assistant, Revna, who is of Raphael’s generation and secretly loves him. Within the town is the seminary, an institution of learning led by Miril, who is Raphael’s mentor and surrogate parent. Miril tells the Doctor about the Panjistri and the planet’s history; but he doesn’t remember his own childhood, or his parents. Something doesn’t add up; there was allegedly once a nuclear war, but there is no fallout, no radiation. The Doctor concludes, ultimately, that the Panjistri are deceiving the Kirithons, and tampering with their memories—but, why? What are they hiding? Meanwhile, the Panjistri’s leader, the Grand Matriarch, is watching the Doctor’s actions, with her servant Fetch—but even Fetch can see that something is wrong with the Matriarch, and her personality is changing.
Ace becomes close with Raphael, and persuades him to help her investigate. They check out the Harbours of the Chosen, the facility where the Panjistri make landfall when they come from their island fortress, Kandasi. They find it to be a lab where genetic and biological experiments are conducted; and they find the Homunculus, a horribly misshapen hybrid creature in an experimental fluid tank. They are caught by the Panjistri Reptu, the liaison between the Panjistri and the Kirithons, who says the Homunculus is the potential salvation of everyone. As they flee, Ace gives Raphael her backpack, which has canisters of Nitro-9 explosive; they split up. Raphael returns to the city and reports to Revna, only to find out that she is the one who told Reptu where to find them; he locates the Doctor and Miril, only to be betrayed again. All three of them are captured, and taken to the Harbours. Ace flees to a forbidden area called the Darkfell, where she meets a group of Kirithons called the Unlike, who have all been twisted through experimentation. They explain that the food the Kirithons eat, called zavat, is the processed remains of their own dead, and is formulated to make them susceptible to memory manipulation. This is why they don’t remember their true past, and why they have forgotten the many loved ones who were taken for experimentation. They also reveal that the Doctor has been captured; they agree to help her save him if he will in turn heal them and their home.
At the Harbours, Raphael attacks Reptu, showing the first aggression any Kirithon has ever shown toward the Panjistri. He fails, however, and the Doctor is taken to Kandasi and abandoned on a hillside. He makes his way toward what is ostensibly the Panjistri fortress, outwitting traps along the way, as the Grand Matriarch watches. En route, he has another vision of his second incarnation, in which he met a little girl named Lilith in an alien marketplace. Meanwhile, Raphael uses Ace’s Nitro-9 to escape the Harbours; he and Miril meet up with Ace and the Unlike. The Unlike want to destroy the Homunculus before they pursue the Doctor; while they argue, it feeds on their anger, and breaks free, forcing Raphael to kill it to save Ace. They return to the seminary, and with the Unlike, they recruit the staff to form a resistance movement. They manage to shut down the power in the city, and the food supply; in addition to causing unrest against the Panjistri, the lack of Zavat will cause some people to regain their suppressed memories. Revna takes advantage of the situation to undermine Huldah; and when the Panjistri inevitably come to suppress the uprising and restore services, Huldah is executed, and Revna is made Procurator. The rebels are forced to flee into the Darkfell.
Ace and her friends take a Panjistri boat and set out for Kandasi; along the way, Miril is killed by a genetically-modified sea monster. On Kandasi, they reconnect with the Doctor, but find that the stronghold is empty; it contains only a transmat unit. The unit takes them to a huge space station near the planet, which the Kirithons have always believed to be a second moon—it is the true Kandasi. Here the Doctor reveals what he has learned: The Kirithons were created here, and never actually evolved. However, the station attempts to eject them as intruders; and though it is overridden by the Panjistri, Ace vanishes in the confusion. Reptu informs them that she has been taken to the Grand Matriarch. She will die, but in so doing, she will complete the Grand Matriarch’s long plan to save the universe from its inevitable death. The Panjistri for millennia have accumulated the best and brightest of many sentient races, and combined their talents and experiences into a massive machine, the God Machine, which will have the power to manipulate reality—and the wisdom to pull it off. Only one thing remains to be added—aggression. The Homunculus was to have provided this, but without it, Ace will substitute, as she is from Earth, a world known to have been warlike.
The Doctor knows it will not work—all things, even the universe, have their time. But it’s worse than that; for the Doctor himself has doomed it to failure. He explains that, after his last victory over the Timewyrm, it hid in the one place he would never have expected: His own past. It entered his mind immediately after his first regeneration, when he was weak; and on an alien world, it passed into the mind of a young, impressionable girl named Lilith, whose telepathic powers were overwhelming. Now, five thousand years later, Lilith is the Grand Matriarch of the Panjistri—and her victory will give the Timewyrm power over the God Machine and all creation.
Lilith has started to shut down the station, and it will soon fall apart; but in the meantime, she has blocked access to her chamber. The Doctor and Fetch, Lilith’s now-abandoned servant, make their way across the hull to Lilith’s chamber, and break in; meanwhile, Raphael hears a voice, of a long lost friend…he makes his way through hidden passages to the vast chamber where the God Machine waits. Unknown to anyone, he merges with the machine, giving up his own life willingly…
The Doctor confronts Lilith, who promptly kills Fetch. Fully in the thrall of the Timewyrm, she gloats over the Doctor as she prepares to add Ace to the God Machine…but it’s too late. Raphael, having learned independence and aggression from Ace, has given the Machine what it needed, and now its power is absolute. It expels the Timewyrm from Lilith’s body, and regresses her to innocence before she dies. It returns the Panjistri to Kirith, along with the Doctor and Ace; the Panjistri will be forced to live alongside their creations. Then the station explodes; even the God Machine acknowledges that its power is too much.
However, when the Doctor and Ace return to the TARDIS, they see that it is still reading the Timewyrm’s existence. Ace remembers that Raphael was horrified at killing the Homunculus, and realizes that the God Machine did not actually kill the Timewyrm, simply banished it. The hunt is not yet over.
While I haven’t yet read the final book, I suspect that this book is the low point of the Timewyrm quadrology with regard to quality. It’s not a bad story; it’s just the presentation. It jumps around quite a bit without warning (not a good thing when coupled with the ebook format I was reading, which tends to remove any divider marks or extra spaces between scenes), and is a little heavy-handed in its descriptions. Still, it was an enjoyable read, once I got past the first few chapters, but I admit that getting started was a challenge.
Some elements are introduced but not well explained. For one, the Grand Matriarch states that the Doctor is “not only a Time Lord”, but she never elaborates. I take this to be a bit of pre-planning for the Doctor’s role as Time’s Champion later in the VNAs, but at this early stage it’s cryptic with no resolution. (Or possibly, she’s just commenting on his status as the Timewyrm’s great enemy?) Another example: the planet, and especially the island of Kandasi, is artificially soaked in artron energy, which the Doctor comments on several times, but never really explains what it’s accomplishing. It may be that the energy is powering the transmat, but he never says so; and that is inconsistent with anything we’ve ever seen before. An early reference is made to Logopolis, and the entropy which the Logopolitans worked to dispel; it mentions the final CVE closing at some unidentified point. No further mention is ever made of this event, and it seems it’s only mentioned to establish that the end of the universe is coming—but it’s totally unnecessary for that purpose.
For the second book in a row, the Timewyrm is almost incidental to the plot. It’s true that she has been behind the scenes via the character of Lilith; but the Panjistri could just as easily been convincing villains without her. In fact, the Timewyrm gets even less focus here than in Exodus; she has few if any discernible lines of her own, and even the plan of the Panjistri seems to have only been co-opted by the Timewyrm, not inspired by her. It doesn’t do much to weaken the overall story; but it does undermine the book’s role in the quadrology. We should get more in the final book, I think.
The Doctor’s reputation as a manipulator is explored more deeply here; this time it’s not Ace, but Raphael that he uses, putting him in a position to sacrifice himself and deliberately avoiding rescuing the boy from that fate. He makes some thin justification on the basis that it was Raphael’s choice; but it seems shaky at best. Ace, meanwhile, goes on being Ace; she doesn’t get a lot of character growth here, though she is becoming a leader in her own right. It has the feeling of a held breath before the exhale that the next novel should be.
The supporting cast are better than the stock characters we often get, with most of them having their own story arc—downplayed, perhaps, but definitely present. Revna, in addition to being Raphael’s childhood friend, had a brother who was taken for the God Machine, and her memories—as everyone else’s—were suppressed thereafter so that she would forget him. She is a flawed character anyway, but when Raphael at last spurns her in favor of Ace, she chooses hate over love, and begins her path of betrayal. Miril is more than just a teacher; he’s an old man with regrets, but instead of sitting on them, he chooses to do something about it. It costs him his life, but he would not consider it a waste. Huldah is weak and easily deceived, and his habit of feathering his own nest leads to his downfall. Arun, the leader of the Unlike, is torn between her innate goodness and her desire for revenge. Reptu is every bit the consummate leader—until he faces his own leader, whom he fears. Raphael is the real point of sympathy here; he is the most human and well-rounded of the Kirithons. He falls for Ace, but it isn’t entirely reciprocated; but in the end, his care for her is the final piece of his character to fall into place, and leads to his self-sacrifice.
Some references: There’s the obvious reference to Logopolis that I have already mentioned. Ace refers again to the events of Ghost Light, or rather, to her childhood which was mentioned in that episode; she mentions also the explosion in her school’s art room, which was previously mentioned in Battlefield. The Doctor’s visions cover several events from his second life; he mentions landing in Australia (The Enemy of the World), and several adventures with Ben and Polly (The Tenth Planet, Power of the Daleks, The Smugglers), and also gets a flashback of his regeneration scene from The War Games. Ace mentions Iceworld (Dragonfire). The Doctor mentions Professor Travers (The Abominable Snowmen) and Alzarius (Full Circle). The Rills, last seen in Galaxy 4, once visited Kirith. Oddly, Lilith makes a reference to the Time Lords being extinct; this is probably simply because of the late stage in the universe’s existence, but in hindsight it can also be taken to foreshadow their destruction in the Time War. It’s an offscreen adventure, but the Second Doctor once visited the now-destroyed Panjistri homeworld to obtain mercury for the TARDIS; from his point of view it was between The Power of the Daleks and The Highlanders. Also, while I rarely get into real-world references or references to other fiction, it’s worth noting that the Zavat food substance is a direct reference to Soylent Green, in that it’s made from human (or rather, Kirithon) dead.
Overall, it’s not a bad story, just a mediocre one—it would have made a decent filler story in the classic series. Still, it’s hampered by the presentation; and I had a difficult time getting going with it. While I’m glad to have finished it, I’m even more glad to move on.
Next time: We finish the Timewyrm quadrology with Timewyrm: Revelation, written by Paul Cornell! See you there.