We’re back, with another Doctor Who prose review! I say “prose” instead of the usual “novel”, because what I’m reviewing today isn’t strictly a novel; it’s a collection. I’m a bit behind on the New Adventures—didn’t make it through Transit in time to post about it this week—and so we’ll cover something different that I finished recently. Today we’re covering J.R. Southall’s Fanwinked, an unauthorized collection of Doctor Who short stories. It’s off the beaten path, but bear with me; it may interest you, and it’s currently in print (unlike most of the New Adventures). Let’s get started!
Spoilers ahead for anyone who has not read this book!
I have to say up front, I was a little confused when I discovered this book (via a post on the Facebook page for the War Doctor charity anthology, Seasons of War, which with any luck should be arriving in the mail this week). It’s billed as unauthorized—the author doesn’t shy away from descriptions of “fanfiction”—and yet it’s still for sale. I’ve been working toward publication for some time, and I still have no idea how that can be legal, but apparently it is. At any rate, allegedly all royalties are being donated to charity, so perhaps that has something to do with it.
The key descriptor I have for the book is “irreverent”. It’s not a serious take on the Whoniverse at all, although there are a few serious stories in it. Most of its selections are parodies of one sort or another. Don’t let that discourage you; they’re mostly good parodies, if not quite Curse of Fatal Death good. When I say irreverent, I also mean that there is material here that—while not particularly lurid—would be a bit too racy for the television series, though not by much. (He may allow it to be called fanfiction, but it’s not THAT kind of fanfiction. Mostly.)
It is worth it to take a moment and copy over the book’s back-cover blurb before we go on:
Somewhere in space and time, Peter Cushing really is the first Doctor Who, Hugh Grant’s TARDIS turn lasted longer than a few Fatal Death minutes, and Adric is the King of the Neanderthals.
In this same alternative reality, the United States produced their own domestic remake of the series, Clara met the eighth Doctor over a cow, and the eleventh Doctor had an insatiable desire to terminate Amy and Rory with as much extreme prejudice as he could muster.
None of these things are real. But don’t let that stop you.
The blurb is a bit misleading. There is a Cushing Doctor story, but it’s strictly within the universe of the Cushing Dr. Who films; and as far as I could tell, there is no story that includes Hugh Grant’s Doctor (or if there is, he’s vague enough not to make it obvious; maybe it was a planned story that was cut?). Adric definitely is king of the Neanderthals, however; we’ll get to that. The other stories it references are as it says.
Let’s take a glance at each story. I’m listing them out of order; I want to look at the parodies first, and then finish with the more serious works. Many of the stories are set up like an Unbound audio: “What if…?”
The book opens with “The Silent Space”. This Eleventh-Doctor story asks the question, “What if you open the TARDIS doors while it’s in flight?” The answer really has nothing to do with the question, but that’s beside the point. The story’s real purpose is to provide a send-up of the show’s habit of killing Rory Williams at every opportunity—in fact, he dies a few times in this story—and to that end, it brings in River Song at various ages, and not one, but two Amys—who end up kissing each other. Hey, I did say it was mostly not that kind of fanfiction. It’s a funny story, but it’s a little disorganized; there are certainly better. The book also includes an earlier draft of this story, which is in the form of a script rather than a short story, but hits all the same notes. The story was first published in a fanzine called Fanwnak (and no, that isn’t a misspelling, it’s actually titled that way).
“River Song’s Bedtime Story”, also written for Fanwnak, is a good followup to the “The Silent Space”. It uses the framework of River—the adult River, mind you—visiting her parents, Amy and Rory, overnight for the first time; and she insists on something she never got as a child: A bedtime story. Okay, silly, perhaps, but simple enough. The story they tell her reads as a parody, but actually is fairly serious with regard to its events. In the story, the Doctor takes Amy and Rory (post-The Big Bang) back to Totter’s Yard, 23 November 1963, to show them where his travels had their beginning (yes, I know, not literally the beginning, but shut up, this is fanwank at its best). Their plans take an abrupt turn, however, when they end up rerouted to Dallas a day early, and meet none other than Lee Harvey Oswald. The Doctor’s usual take on such events is to leave them untouched, but there’s just one problem: Oswald is a Time Agent from the future, and he’s here to save the president! Insert chaos, watch things degrade from there. I won’t spoil the ending.
“Companion Peace” rounds out this early trilogy of Fanwnak submissions, all of which feature the Eleventh Doctor, Amy, Rory, and River. This is the only story that I truly didn’t like, and for one simple reason: It’s creepy as hell. In its presentation, it feels very much like Curse of Fatal Death; it features the Doctor divesting himself of past responsibilities—mostly in the form of his companions, whom he repeatedly tries to drop off in dangerous situations—and obtaining a new love interest. That’s fine; it’s funny. Then you reach the last page; and for once, I don’t mind giving a spoiler. On the last page, you find out that the new love interest…is a memory-wiped Susan. You find this out just before the Doctor goes to bed with her. This is completely out of character for this author, and honestly I have no idea what the hell he was thinking, or how he got even an independent fanzine to publish it. I promise you the other stories are not like that.
“Dance of Light” brings us to a section of stories that feel parodic, but really aren’t; the author is writing a serious story, but cloaking it in humor. It’s well done in most cases, and is similar to the way that the Christmas specials tend to run; in fact, one story that we’ll get to could be a sort of Christmas special. More of that later. This story—written under the pseudonym “Terrance Dick”, without the final –s–actually doesn’t involve the Doctor at all. It’s a UNIT story, set shortly before the Third Doctor’s regeneration in Planet of the Spiders, and it gives us the story of Harry Sullivan’s arrival at UNIT. Sergeant Benton, the Brigadier, Mike Yates, and Jo Grant find themselves obligated to thwart an alien invasion while attending a celebration of UNIT’s tenth anniversary. It’s a neatly written story, and gives Jo and Mike a chance to take center stage, however briefly. Harry—the real Harry, if that’s not revealing too much—does appear near the end. The Doctor gets a brief mention, but does not appear. Anything else I could say would be a spoiler; but I will say that I thoroughly enjoyed this story, and was sorry to see it be so short. (Big Finish, take note: Perhaps a set of UNIT Short Trips wouldn’t be out of order…?)
“Maid of Eight” is another faux-parodic story. It’s narrated by Clara Oswald, although that isn’t revealed until later, and involves one of her many “echoes” from The Name of the Doctor. This one meets the Eighth Doctor; it’s not particularly clear from the story itself that that is the incarnation appearing here, but between the descriptions given and the title of the story, it’s obvious. Eight is traveling alone at this point. I’m not fond of Clara in her later seasons, but I’ve always admitted to liking the “impossible girl” storyline, and this story falls under that umbrella, so it’s not bad. It also includes a cow with green milk. What’s not to love?
“Time-Shock” is the promised Adric story, and takes a tongue-in-cheek look at the popular complaint that the Fifth Doctor could have saved Adric. The Doctor wants to go back and save Adric; Nyssa and Tegan, not so much. There are some suggestive moments—okay, some very blatant suggestive moments—between Nyssa and Tegan, and some innuendo involving the Doctor; this is not a family story, but it’s not creepy like “Companion Peace”, either. The story begins at the end of Earthshock, and ends with Adric becoming the expected King of the Neanderthals (and the Australopithecus, and…). How he gets there is something you just have to see for yourself. Suffice it to say, he didn’t die after all, despite the best efforts of his female companions.
“Let’s Regenerate!” is written in script form. I have to say, I’ve read it once, gone over it a few more times, and I still have no idea what’s going on. That in no way makes it any less funny. It involves the various Doctors meeting and progressing through their regenerations, finally culminating in a new, Thirteenth Doctor (gloriously portrayed as John Cleese). The Valeyard makes an appearance; we get not one, but TWO Capaldi Twelfth Doctors; and the first through third Doctors are portrayed by Kenneth Colley, Sam Troughton, and Sean Pertwee. Every Doctor delivers a ton of one-line non sequiturs, but always perfectly in character. I’m still laughing, even if I can’t quite figure out why.
“WHO” asks the question: “What if Doctor Who was remade in America?” You may have seen the list that went around a few years ago of who might play the various Doctors, had the show been made in America (it was quite good, except for Nicholas Cage). This, I assure you, is as far from that as you can get. We’re so deep in parody territory here that we may never get out. The author uses multiple pseudonyms within this story; his favorite is “Stephen Muppet”, poking fun at Steven Moffat. This story is the most egregious example of that. It’s another Eleventh Doctor story, though only incredibly loosely so; it takes the characters of the Amy Pond (or rather, Aimee Bond—yes, it’s that kind of parody) era and loosely retells the story of Genesis of the Daleks, and I do mean loosely. Rory still manages to die, or almost anyway. There’s a lot of innuendo here, but nothing particularly gratuitous, unless you count renaming the TARDIS as “Travels In Time And Space Shuttle”—you figure out the acronym. Yes, they make exactly that joke. It’s a funny story, but I felt like it tries too hard; it’s humor on the same level as the old Mad Magazine or Cracked Magazine comics, but without the experience those magazines had after years of writing such things.
“The Happy Man” is parody by merit of its subject matter, though it tries to be a serious story. It’s a sequel to The Happiness Patrol, and brings back the Kandy Man—excuse me, the Happy Man, as he’s calling himself here. It’s hard to write a story about that character without unintentionally becoming a parody; Southall doesn’t really manage the trick. It’s not a bad story, though. It begins with a drug epidemic, and ends as a human-interest story, and somehow the transition doesn’t seem contrived. It does give us a made-up companion character, Punk, rather than using Ace; I think that was a good decision, as Ace would have taken over this story, and it’s not about the companion. It has one of the better speeches about the Doctor’s (and the companion’s) purpose, and it’s worth the read just for that scene. I enjoyed it anyway, but if you just can’t stomach a Kandy Man story, it’s probably skippable.
“Pieces of Eight” is by far the strangest story in the collection. I was sure at first that it was going to be some kind of parody. It’s written in script form, and an animated version exists on YouTube, although I haven’t looked it up as yet. It’s an Eighth Doctor story, and at first glance it’s another take on the popular trope of having the Doctor meet his past selves inside his own mind. It lampshades this trope by having the Doctor recognize that that is what’s happening; but still, nothing works out quite like he expects. The various version of the Doctor have alternate names here, like “Stream” and “Flavour” and “Choke”; that’s one of the reasons I assumed it was a parody, and laughed appropriately. By the end of the story, you’re not laughing anymore, as the story very suddenly pulls the curtain back, and you realize that it’s a commentary on the Time War, before the War even begins. I was completely caught off guard by this turn of events, and I like to think I’m good at spotting a twist coming. It’s a very good story, though it can only really spring its twist on you once, and probably wouldn’t hold up to rereading (or as I call this, “Shyamalan Syndrome”). It does seem to have been written before the War Doctor was introduced, as it skips over him and ends with a cameo of the Ninth Doctor. (In context, that’s not much of a spoiler—read the story!)
Now we reach the truly serious stories, of which there are three. These occur in the middle of the book, but I delayed them to the end of the post, because they’re worth the extra consideration. “Time’s Past is a short piece, only requiring two or three minutes to read, but it is hands down the most emotional piece in the book. It’s a very brief encounter between an aging Ian Chesterton and the Eleventh Doctor, in which they reminisce without ever quite revealing their identities to each other. It doesn’t matter; they know. (It doesn’t take into account Ian’s previous meeting with the Eleventh Doctor in Hunters of the Burning Stone, but then, stories in other media often overlook the comics, so that’s forgiveable, perhaps.) This story made me cry, which is something that almost never happens with regard to a story. It also takes into account the real-world death of Jacqueline Hill, giving a corresponding death to Barbara at some point in the past, and handling the entire matter very respectfully, but also very emotionally. It’s my favorite entry in the collection, and I highly recommend it. I’ve often imagined such a scene between the Twelfth Doctor and Ian, and I had hoped that he would make a cameo in Class as one of Coal Hill’s board of governors, so that we would have such a scene; but it didn’t happen, of course. This story is very much what I would have imagined, though with a different Doctor.
“The Short and the Tall of It” is the aforementioned Cushing/Dr. Who story. It’s narrated in first person by that universe’s version of Ian, who is still dating Dr. Who’s granddaughter, Barbara, placing it between the two films. It implies that there have been other adventures in Tardis (again, not a misspelling—see any post about the movies for more details) since the first, with Ian a semi-unwilling participant. It’s this universe’s answer to Planet of Giants, and makes clever use of both time-travel (Tardis-free, this time) and changes in size. I’m fond of the films, and I like stories with the Cushing Doctor, rare as they may be; and I really had no problems with this story. It’s pure fun, but that’s exactly what it aims to be, and it succeeds.
Finally, there’s “Everything In Its Right Place”. This story centers on the War Doctor, and constitutes Southall’s contribution to the Seasons of War charity anthology. It seems to hinge on other events covered in that anthology, though I won’t be sure until I receive my copy; it implies that the War Doctor previously relocated Earth into another dimension. In Earth’s place, something else has arisen, riding on the dreams of the displaced planet. It’s told from the point of view of Alice, a peculiar girl who seems to be not entirely human…but she’s becoming human, or so the Doctor thinks. It plays out similarly to such classic stories as The Mind Robber, with changing environments and adversaries; it ends with a poignant loss, before the Doctor returns to his war. It’s the older War Doctor in view here, although I understand that the charity anthology includes stories of his younger self as well. There are two versions of this story as well; the version that was submitted for the anthology appears first, and an earlier draft rounds out the book. Both are good; the changes don’t seem to improve so much as change focus.
As a whole, the collection is better than I expected when I bought it. At a price of just five dollars for the Kindle edition, I wasn’t expecting much; I just thought it would be a few hours’ idle entertainment. I was pleasantly surprised. There’s really only one low point (“Companion Peace”), and several of the other stories give insight into corners of the Doctor Who universe that often slip through the cracks and get forgotten. It’s an emotional roller coaster, running the gamut from humor to sobriety to nobility to “Why would you WRITE that?!” It’s available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle edition; the link is below. If you’re the kind of fan for whom “canon” is less a structure and more a friendly suggestion, you’ll love this collection; and even if that’s not you, you’ll still find something to enjoy. Check it out!
Next week: Hopefully I’ll be back on track with the VNAs, reviewing Transit. See you there.
Fanwinked, by J.R. Southall, may be purchased from Amazon in Kindle and paperback editions. Link is below.