We’re back, with another Doctor Who novel review! This week, we’re continuing the Virgin New Adventures series (VNAs) with the second entry in the Cat’s Cradle trilogy: Cat’s Cradle: Warhead. Written by former script editor Andrew Cartmel, this entry was published in April 1992. Let’s get started!
Spoilers ahead for anyone who has not read this book!
I’m going to find it difficult to give this story in the order in which the book presents it and still be reasonably brief, so I may skip around.
In the mid-21st century, Earth’s environmental concerns have grown drastically more severe. Soon, they will reach the point of no return. Already, simply breathing the air in a major city can be deadly, and the countryside is not much safer. Everyone has their part in it, but the mega-corporations are most at fault; and only they have the ability to act on a scale large enough to halt the devastation. But one group, the Butler Institute, has other, more sinister plans.
Outside a Butler-owned construction site in the mountains near New York, a young boy tries to destroy a camera on the fringe of the site so that he can play in the woods again. The Doctor makes a slingshot for him to destroy the camera—a symbolic gesture, but a sign of things to come.
Ace’s childhood friend, Shreela, is dying, her body poisoned by the foul air. She has spent her life as a journalist, specializing in scientific topics. The Doctor comes to her with one last article to publish, and it is a very strange one…but she owes him her life, and she is willing to help him one last time.
In New York City, a policeman named McIlveen is shot and killed by Butler Institute operatives. His body is collected and taken to the Institute’s headquarters at the King Building, leaving his partner, Mancuso, to pick up the pieces. The Doctor is also at the King Building, where he befriends a sick and dying housekeeper named Maria, and gets her to commit one last act of rebellion against the company that both employed and poisoned her: she opens the computers for him to access, allowing him to break into the mainframes and gather information.
An old predator named Bobby Prescott once fought and failed to save a library in a riot. Jaded by his experiences, he now targets and kills the child gang members whom he blames for the riots. But, months ago, something terrifying happened to him in the drugstore across the street from the ruined library. The Doctor forces him to reveal his secrets, which concern something vital in a drum in Turkey…and summons the gangs that have hunted Bobby even as he hunted them.
O’Hara, the founder of the Butler Institute, is spearheading its secret project, and looking for people he can trust to help him. He secretly pits two employees, Stephanie and Mulwray, from his Biostock division—which kidnaps people to harvest their organs for the rich and powerful—against each other; when they prove their loyalty, he promotes them to his team. His plan is to go live with a process he has developed, which transfers living minds into computers—making them functionally immortal, but killing the body in the process. He plans to submit his own son, eight-year-old Patrick, to the process while it is in the testing phase. The construction site is a massive bunker which will house the computerized minds of thousands, rendering the dying environment irrelevant. Stephanie throws herself in wholeheartedly, but Mulwray is disgusted—but he can’t back out now. Seemingly unrelated, O’Hara has also noted and read the article planted by Shreela, which led him to institute a new protocol for acquisitions in the Biostock division.
Ace is in Turkey, doing something she never imagined: hiring mercenaries. With the help of an old friend of the Doctor, she succeeds, though not without embarrassing the group’s leader, Massoud. The night before their operation begins, he tries and fails to kill her, and she is forced to drive him away. With the rest of the group, they attack a small outpost, which is manned by four teenage boys with weapons. They are guarding the drum to which Bobby Prescott referred; Ace has it shipped back to the England. Leaving, she is attacked again by Massoud, and is forced to kill him. She connects with the Doctor at the airport, and they return to his house in Kent, where the TARDIS is sleeping in the basement.
Inside the drum is a teenage boy, Vincent Wheaton, in suspended animation. His story—as revealed in flashback as he awakens—is dramatic. He has the frightening ability to unlock the emotions of anyone he touches; if they are negative, they are converted into a wild power that can manifest in many ways. As a child, he attacked his abusive father with a mirror without touching it; as a teenager, he was accosted by Bobby Prescott and a few others in a drugstore back lot, where he transformed a bicycle into a monstrosity that killed all the adults except Bobby, who escaped. One of the boys who had been guarding the drum, Calvin, was present and witnessed the incident; it was he and his three friends who decided Vincent was a monster, and captured him. They sealed him in the drum, relocated him to the beach in Turkey, and buried him there, then guarded him for several months.
While he recovers, the Doctor and Ace meet another new arrival: a girl of similar age to Vincent, named Justine, who breaks into the house. The Doctor arranged this as well, having planted magazine articles that led her here. She is a spiritist of sorts, believing in witchcraft, other planes, and the like. As well, she was traumatized as a child when her best friend was struck by a car and killed; the incident twisted her thinking to a radical form of eco-awareness, in which she blames vehicles and industrialization for all the world’s problems. But this makes her just the kind of person the Doctor needs… In the house, she finds and touches Vincent, and unwittingly unleashes his power, causing two of the cars in the Doctor’s garage to explode. Together, they constitute a weapon of considerable power—but the Doctor doesn’t anticipate that she will rapidly fall in love with Vincent.
The four of them travel to New York. Justine drugs Vincent, and ensures that the Butler Institute’s Biostock department will find him and collect him—but, once inside, due to O’Hara’s new collection protocol, Vincent’s bio-markers trip an alert, and he is sent to O’Hara’s home at the construction site. The Doctor takes Ace and Justine to a drugstore which is being robbed—possibly at the Doctor’s design. He has arranged for Mancuso and her new partner to respond; and Mancuso is testing a new weapon from R&D, which has been secretly fed to the police by the Institute. She finds that the thieves have a hovercraft for removing their stolen goods; she crashes it, blocking their escape, before she and Breen—her partner—finish off the criminals. She finds that the gun has a life of its own, literally, when it saves her life. While this is happening, Justine takes a capsule that appears to kill her, alarming the Doctor—not because she is dead, but because it’s too soon. She had another role to play, and now Ace must do it, by letting herself be arrested.
The Institute has made a double deal with the corrupt police department. The Biostock department gets the pick of the holding cells; as well, they obtain any bodies from crime scenes. Justine is taken in the latter manner, and Ace in the former; but before Stephanie and Mulwray can remove Ace, Breen intervenes and stops them, and sends Ace to Mancuso. Mancuso is at the R&D department, getting a sympathetic researcher, Peterson, to look at her new gun. The Doctor arrives shortly before Ace, and demonstrates that the gun really is alive in a sense; its control chip contains the mind of Mancuso’s dead partner, McIlveen. Convinced, she agrees to help the Doctor stop the Institute.
Justine was supposed to infiltrate the King Building and let the others in; her pill only simulates death for a time. However, because she took it too early, the team needs a new plan; and Mancuso provides it. She drives the crashed hovercraft from the crime scene through the gates and the front doors. They quickly rescue Justine, then—with the McIlveen chip as a pilot—they steal a helicopter and head to the construction site. O’Hara has just killed his wife, who could not accept what he had done to Patrick. Mancuso goes into the house to get Vincent, but is waylaid and shot three times by Stephanie, O’Hara, and—unwillingly—Mulwray, as O’Hara had anticipated the plot. They get the drop on the Doctor’s group. Mulwray snaps and lashes out at O’Hara, but is killed; but this allows Vincent to make contact with Justine. However, she is overwhelmed to have him back, and all her pent-up rage evaporates, leaving him with no ammunition, as it were. O’Hara tackles the boy—and finds out the hard way that it’s not only Justine who can trigger his power, as years of coldness and hatred and disgust pour out of him and through Vincent in a wave of destruction that obliterates the entire construction site. O’Hara is killed in the blast, as is Stephanie.
The mega-corporations that were previously backing the Butler Institute now find themselves scrambling to salvage something. They are forced to turn to efforts at a global cleanup, which will take years, but can ultimately prove profitable. Mancuso is still alive, and the Doctor hooks her to a life support system—and when the control unit says her injuries are too severe, he wires in McIlveen’s chip, which is more determined to save her life. Justine and Vincent are free to be together, but his power is gone; but as the weapon they constituted has served his purpose, all’s well that ends well.
This book is grim in so many ways. It’s enjoyable, certainly, but it’s dark in a way that we rarely get to see onscreen even in the modern era. People die all the time in Doctor Who stories, but here, it’s on a personal and invasive level that few stories seem to match. There’s a lot of violence even beyond the deaths; Ace gets beaten up at least three times, possibly more, for example. In addition, humanity doesn’t look so good here, at least not at more privileged levels—the destruction of the environment here can’t be played up enough. It’s a timely story in the real world, as the climate change debate continues to grow; and it’s timely for me in terms of these reviews as well. Yesterday I reviewed the audio drama Loups-Garoux, which is set a few decades after this story in the year 2080; in that story, the Amazon basin has become a vast desert, and temperatures are unpredictable. It’s serendipitous to see these otherwise-unrelated stories dovetail in this way, but it’s a bit disturbing when compared to the real world.
It’s very unclear at this point how this story fits in with the previous story. They constitute the first two parts of the Cat’s Cradle trilogy, and this one seems to follow shortly after Time’s Crucible; but it bears very little connection otherwise. It’s implied here that the TARDIS is still recovering from the damage it took in that book, and indeed, the Doctor doesn’t push the machine too hard; he uses it occasionally, but he also travels by car, taxi, plane, and foot. There are no interior scenes of the TARDIS here. I am interested to see how the final volume of the trilogy ties things together, because I’m not seeing it right now. Interestingly, this book—while being part two of the Cat’s Cradle trilogy—starts a trilogy of its own, the “War Trilogy”, consisting of Warhead, Warlock, and Warchild. Those books are not consecutive in the overall VNA series, however, and we’ll discuss them as we get to them.
The Doctor’s house on Allen Road in Kent is not original to this story—it originated in the comic story Fellow Travellers, and will appear again in the novel Transit. Purchased with his UNIT pay during his third incarnation, it’s not the only house he ever owns; his fourth incarnation also owns Nest Cottage (Hornet’s Nest, Demon Quest, Serpent’s Crest). He owns several vehicles, but Bessie doesn’t seem to be one of them; that’s appropriate, since Battlefield makes it clear that he left it in UNIT’s possession, and it may not even still exist this far in the future. UNIT certainly gets no mention here, and also may not still exist.
One plot point in particular stuck out to me as especially unbelievable, and I have to mention it. There’s no real explanation for the teenage boys who capture Vincent and put him in the barrel and transport him to Turkey. Their stated reason for doing it is that they consider Vincent a monster; so, why not just dispose of him in some way? (Perhaps they wouldn’t kill him, but I can see them ambushing him and beating him, or trying to get him arrested, etc.) Why go to the trouble of putting him in suspended animation? Why Turkey? How did they get there (with a drummed kid in tow)? Did no one notice them missing? What was their end game—were they just going to guard him forever? This plan seems insane for four teenagers, or even four adults.
When I discovered O’Hara’s plan, I was convinced this would become a Cybermen story, and honestly, I’m a little disappointed that it didn’t. O’Hara’s motivations are very much in line with those of John Lumic (Cybus Industries); both men want to transcend death and the limitations of the flesh, and evolve the mind. There’s even an old and disabled man who wants the procedure to save himself; here, it’s one of O’Hara’s investors. Still, it’s not a bad ending; and I suppose I can’t complain about an original plot that doesn’t rely on the standard enemies.
It’s often been said that the Seventh Doctor is a manipulator; but his manipulations in previous stories are child’s play compared to what he does here. He masterminds the entire situation from start to finish, and his mistakes are only missteps in the long run. While he doesn’t really manipulate Ace here, he does put her in harm’s way; she doesn’t seem to care anymore, and it’s clear she’s growing stronger on her own. He does allow a number of people to die, and directly engineers the deaths of many of them; there’s none of the Tenth Doctor’s mercy on his enemies here. It’s a frightening and very nearly cruel version of the Doctor, and makes you wonder where he will go from here.
I think that, often, we get into a rut with Doctor Who stories. Certain patterns show up over and over again. You have evil regimes being overthrown, higher-level beings to thwart, crashed spaceships, natural disasters, and of course the Daleks, Cybermen, etc. There’s nothing wrong with all of that—it IS a science fiction show—but even within those confines, there are many types of stories that can be told, and it’s a delight when a story breaks out of the usual mold. This novel is an example of that, because, at its core, it’s a heist story. It’s true that the end goal is not to steal something, but to destroy something—but everything else about the story matches the heist model. The Doctor puts together a team of specialists to break into a secured facility and get access to something he otherwise couldn’t reach…it’s Ocean’s Eleven meets Doctor Who. In that vein, it’s similar to Time Heist; however, Time Heist relied on the plot device of lost memory to conceal the truth from the audience. This story relies instead on the fact that the parts of its plot occur in far-flung, disconnected locations, with individuals who at first appear to have no connection to each other. I couldn’t come up with any other television story that fits this mold, although A Good Man Goes To War is close, as is The Wedding of River Song. For once, as far as television is concerned, we may have seen something new—but the VNAs, as seems to often be the case, did it first, and maybe better.
For all that can be said about it, I highly enjoyed this book. It’s a strong story on its own, moving neither too fast nor too slow, and it doesn’t lean on any crutches from other stories. As a result it can be read and enjoyed even without the surrounding books of the trilogies, and I highly recommend it.
Next week: I’m going to take a one-week break from the VNAs, for a reason that I’ll discuss at that time. As a result, I’m not ready to say just yet what we’ll be covering. In the meantime, on the audio front, we’ll go from Kent to Nest Cottage tomorrow with Demon Quest, part three; and we’ll finish up Destiny of the Doctor on Thursday! See you there.