Continuing my series of mini-reviews on the short stories to be found in the charity War Doctor anthology, Seasons of War, edited by Declan May and published by Chinbeard Books.
The War Doctor has just double-crossed the Sterrati, mercenaries who proved to be Dalek agents posing as allies to the rebel Luminals. They didn’t take the betrayal well, and the Time Lord finds himself running to his TARDIS to escape their ship. He is forced to kill seven of them by breaking a window onto vacuum; but in his death throes, the Sterrati captain tosses a grenade into the TARDIS console room. The explosion causes the War Doctor to make an emergency landing on an isolationist world called Muranius. He finds himself in a mine, where he is menaced by cave-dwelling, acid-venomed, spiderlike creatures; he is rescued by a regal woman named Larana, who has striking golden eyes and a gift for telepathy. She is able to pick through his mind at first, learning his former name, and revealing his slaughter of the Sterrati, before he erects mental barriers to keep her out. She decides to take him to the Muranian leader, the Custodian, where he will look upon “the Gift”. On the way to the surface, he sees that the Muranians are divided into two classes: the golden-eyed leadership, and the common menials, who are forced to work themselves to death in the mines. Upon meeting the Custodian, he argues the matter with him, calling it genocide against the menials, but the Custodian sweeps aside his concerns. He explains that, two years ago, meteorites fell from the sky; when held in the hand, the meteorites open up and emit a golden light, which suffuses the holder with a warm life force. If the holder is not found worthy, they remain normal, and become a menial, widely considered less important than even the cave creatures. If the holder is worthy, they receive the Gift; their minds are opened, and they gain the power of telepathy, and a new purpose. As a side effect and a sign, their eyes become golden. The Doctor believes this is the sign of an invasion, and that the meteorites are manipulating the Muranians; hence, the early “chosen” were all from among the ruling elite. Nevertheless, the Custodian forces him to look into one of the meteorites. Its light fills him…and withdraws. He stuns the Muranians when he explains that it looked into him, saw his true identity as the Doctor—and was afraid. The Custodian is then fully taken over, and speaks for the invaders, and reveals that the Doctor is a Time Lord, whom they fear. The Doctor identifies the invaders as the telepathic Celephas, and exposes their plan: they are using the Muranians to dig up Jenelium ore, a high-energy power source used in faster-than-light travel. Larana becomes convinced when she hears this; the Muranians do not leave their world, so why would they need the ore? The Custodian-Celephas says that it no longer matters; they are on their way to dispose of the Muranians and collect their ore. The Doctor manages to place a temporary block on Larana’s mind, breaking her link to the Celephas, just before the Custodian—and every other Chosen with him—falls dead. With Larana, he flees back to the mine, trying to get away before her temporary block breaks down, and before the Celephas arrive. A massive Celephas ship breaks atmosphere, and lizardlike Celephas warriors follow them into the mine, but are intercepted by the cave-dwelling creatures, allowing the Doctor to get Larana into the TARDIS. He cannot save her world—it was too late when the first meteorite opened—but he can save her. To remove her from the Celephas’s telepathic reach, he takes her back in time a thousand years, to a peaceful world with a welcoming species, in a time before the Celephas left their own planet. But, before leaving, he promises to destroy the Celephas fleet so that they cannot do the same to another world.
If your only exposure to the Time War was through the War Doctor audio dramas, the Engines of War novel, or The Day of the Doctor television special, it would be easy to forget that the rest of the universe goes on amidst all the fighting. Not every situation requires direct involvement by the Daleks and Time Lords; the War touches all places, all times, whether the Daleks are on hand or not. This story’s secondary villains, the Muranians, had made their society isolationist specifically to protect themselves from the War (as if refusing to move would protect one from the Daleks), and yet it came to them in the form of the War Doctor. In previous stories, he has been a tired character, stressed by the War, but we hadn’t yet seen the real effect it has on him; but here, he begins to let it slip. There’s a great, brief scene, after he is forced to kill the Sterrati but before the grenade goes off, where he finds his fist twisting with rage, and bitterly mutters “He [that is, the Sterrati captain] should have let me go.” He has to force himself to calm down. This scene is revisited later, when Larana pulls the details from his mind; it becomes clear that he is already struggling with his own motives, his justification for his actions, and already he is starting to question whether he can commit horrors and still be a good man. Interestingly, this is a very rare story where he actually uses the name “Doctor”; when the Celephas retreat from his mind, he comments:
“I could feel it in my head too. A presence, digging, breaking through any barrier I could put up. Looking into my memories, my experiences… It found me. Who I am. It found the Doctor.”
The Doctor lifted his head and stared straight at the Custodian. With his resolutely brown eyes.
“…and it was afraid!”
It’s one of the most powerful moments in the book. I was reminded of the Eleventh Doctor, who usually makes such speeches; and now we see where he gets it. Meanwhile, the plot of this story is far more reminiscent of the Fifth Doctor; I was especially reminded of Frontios, with its underground setting and slave race, and its Tractators whose abilities are not so different from the Celephas. Unfortunately, while Frontios gains its freedom, Muranius is not so lucky. Overall: The Celephas Gift is the longest entry in the anthology, at twenty-four pages; but that length allows it to feel much more like a traditional, Classic-series story, as opposed to the vignettes we’ll see often here. (Nothing against the shorter entries—they’re all very good—but I mention it to showcase the variety we have here. More on that in later posts!) The Celephas are very hate-able villains; the Muranians are tragic; and the short-lived Sterrati are just vile. Meanwhile, the Doctor is, for once, the Doctor—but with an edge. It’s a very enjoyable read.
The Celephas Gift was written by Andrew Smith (a licensed-media Doctor Who author–he gave us Adric with Season 18’s Full Circle), with art by Simon A. Brett. Next time: The Girl with the Purple Hair (I), by Declan May and John Davies. See you there!