We’re back, with another Doctor Who novel review! This week, we’re looking at the fifth entry in the Virgin New Adventures line of novels, Cat’s Cradle: Time’s Crucible, by Marc Platt. Let’s get started!
Spoilers ahead for anyone who has not read this novel!
Having briefly returned to Ace’s hometown of Perivale, a few years (in local time) after Ace’s abrupt departure to Iceworld, the Seventh Doctor and Ace are disturbed by strange phenomena. Reality becomes temporarily distorted round them, and they receive illusions; a silver cat appears and gets them to follow it back to the TARDIS. Once there, they discover they can’t enter; the door is always on the next panel around, no matter which way they go. With difficulty, they manage to misdirect it and get inside. Once inside, the Doctor leaves Ace in the console room and goes deeper into the ship, seeking the source of the trouble. Something has gotten inside, or is about to, and is corrupting the TARDIS, causing it to begin to fall apart. Ace receives a silver scroll from the console, just before the doors explode inward. As the TARDIS dissolves around her, she sees the crew of an incoming ship crashing into the TARDIS.
In Gallifrey’s ancient past, the world was ruled by seeresses called the Pythia, before Rassilon came and took power and initiated the age of reason. All Gallifreyans are possessed of strong telepathic powers, so that no one is ever alone in his or her own mind, with the exception of the Individuals—rare men and women who can wall off their own thoughts. At the end of that dark era, the early experiments in time travel are taking place. The first time ship, the Time Scaphe, is on an early voyage, carrying a crew that consists of a child Pilot named Shonnzi, and five Chronauts: Reogus, Vael, Chesperl, Amnoni, and the Captain, Pekkary. Unknown to the others, Vael is an Individual whose ability to block his thoughts has mysteriously weakened; secretly, he was planted on the crew by the reigning Pythia. Following a legend in a book of future history, she intends to make him her successor, the first male Pythia, though not even he knows this; and thus she wants him on the crew to ensure that future. Meanwhile, Rassilon plots the Pythia’s downfall. Things are upended, however, when the Time Scaphe fails to return—for in the vortex, it has crashed into the Doctor’s TARDIS, forcing him to break the laws of time in spectacular fashion.
Ace awakens in a strange world, a bizarrely empty city. Over time, she meets the Chronauts, who are also here; but things have changed for them. They are now the Phazels, slaves to the city’s ruler, the Process. Vael serves the Process voluntarily, acting as a slave driver to the Phazels; and Shonnzi has disappeared. Ace learns that the city is divided into three Phases, each representing a different time, but all three existing side-by-side, with each slowly becoming the next. On this planet time is scattered, and one can walk from the future to the past and vice versa. In the beginning, the Process—a monstrous, mollusk-like creature—made itself and the world, and seeks to control the future; but the future was stolen by the Doctor. And now, the Process has killed the Doctor.
Ace meets the Phazels, Vael, and Shonnzi in all three periods, sometimes together; she finds that in the final phase, they all become the Process’s guards, which enforce its will in all three phases. Worse, she as well will be one of those guards. As well, she finds that the Doctor is not dead after all; but his memories are stripped out, and he has grown weak. A future version of the Process returns from the third Phase to challenge its young self, as the homeostatic world it has built begins to change. She learns that the city is, in fact, the TARDIS, shattered and turned inside out. The scroll she carries are the TARDIS’s greyprints—multidimensional blueprints—and the cat, as well as an apparition of the Doctor, are the TARDIS’s imprint, its ghost, of sorts. Together, those entities and the greyprints restore the Doctor’s mind, and he is able to regain some control over the dying TARDIS. At the end—and the beginning—as time is about to cycle again, he challenges the Process, which is now in three forms: old, young, and about-to-be-born. He is able to destroy it, and at the same time, challenge the ancient malice of the last Pythia as she tries to seize control of Vael and claim the TARDIS—and the future—for herself. As the TARDIS reconstructs itself on the Doctor’s will, the last Pythia passes without a successor, but not before she curses Gallifrey. She condemns the planet and its people to have no living offspring from the moment of her death forward. Her curse is effective, as even infants in the womb are immediately stillborn.
As the TARDIS is reconstructed, so is the Time Scaphe, and the remaining Chronauts—the youngest version, including the child version of Shonnzi—are able to return to Gallifrey, albeit more than a year late. Their older versions, deprived of existence by a changed past, vanish. The Doctor and Ace are free to travel again—but there will be consequences as yet. And in ancient Gallifrey, the great works of history still lie ahead for Rassilon, the stellar engineer Omega…and one Other.
If my summary is less detailed than usual, it’s because this is a very non-linear story. It follows Ace’s perspective very strictly, because if it did not, it would be utter chaos. From the point of view of nearly every other character, time becomes cyclical inside the city, and cycle connects with cycle in strange ways, so that laying out a stable timeline for those characters would be impossible. For Ace, who has as normal an experience here as possible, it’s a fairly short time; for the Phazels and the Process, it’s years upon years; and for the Doctor…who knows?
None of that is to say it’s badly done. It’s an excellent story, with an excellent presentation, and keeps a firm grasp on the intricacies of a version of time that is utterly different than what we, the readers, are familiar with. It’s made more complex by the frame story of ancient Gallifrey, which does occur in linear time.
We often refer to the alternate history that involves the somewhat-infamous Looms as the “Cartmel masterplan”, for Andrew Cartmel who initiated it in the classic series; but perhaps even more credit should go to Marc Platt, who spelled it all out for us. I personally do not know if any earlier materials did so, but I suspect that this book is the first place where it is described in detail. Here we get a decent, if brief, explanation of the Looms; the Houses of Gallifrey (and notably, Lungbarrow) with their many Cousins, their Housekeepers, and their Kithriarchs; and the Pythia’s curse on the children of Gallifrey. We expand a bit upon the characters of Rassilon and Omega, and introduce the Other (without the capital letter as yet). We also establish an origin for the Sisterhood of Karn; the dying Pythia tells her fellow priestesses to flee to Karn. (How the all-female Sisterhood, with no Looms available, are to avoid dying out is never stated; The Brain of Morbius makes it clear that they do in fact die, despite possessing the Elixir of Life.) Much of this is explained in far greater detail in the penultimate VNA, Lungbarrow, also by Marc Platt; I do not know what other sources may delve into it as yet.
Given that this is the first of a trilogy, it should not surprise me that we never really get an explanation for the Process. Where did it come from? It’s discussed as though it invaded the TARDIS somehow, but we also see its birth inside the City. I hope that this will be further explored in the remaining two books of the trilogy. It’s a bizarre villain, far from human, but not stupid by any means; even the Doctor admits that it is very intelligent, though it’s a bit narrow-minded, perhaps. I can’t help thinking that it was created strictly for the sake of a pun, however; in view of the Process’s having broken the proper organization of time within the City, we get this line:
“I know Processes take Time,” [the Doctor] called, “And that makes you a thief.”
Some references (beyond those already mentioned): The Doctor thinks of Lady Peinforte (Silver Nemesis). There’s a suggestion that the TARDIS—like the Time Scaphe—is meant to have six crewmembers, which will be confirmed much later in Journey’s End (interestingly, both earlier models (Shada TV version) and later models (The Keeper of Traken, Arc of Infinity) of TARDIS do not require six pilots). The TARDIS’s courtyard (Logopolis) and cricket-equipment room (Castrovalva) are mentioned by Ace. Ace also briefly mentions Timewyrms (the Timewyrn tetralogy). In thinking of Rassilon, the Doctor specifically thinks of the events of The Five Doctors; and in researching the Pythia, he uses a card-reader system that is probably the same as the one used for the Record of Rassilon (State of Decay). The Doctor mentions Adric crashing into Mexico (Earthshock).
Not a bad book; in fact, I’ve enjoyed everything by Platt that I’ve encountered so far (with the exception of Ghost Light; I couldn’t get into that episode very well). As it’s the beginning of a story, I’m curious to see where it goes.
Next time: We’ll continue the trilogy with Cat’s Cradle: Warhead by Andrew Cartmel! See you there.