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.
Apologies; this one is a little longer than the other mini-reviews, but that’s because there’s a lot to talk about.
A young Gallifreyan girl, Karlen of the House of Brightshore, knows that she is different. All around her, Gallifrey suffers and groans in the throes of the Time War. Its history is written and rewritten, again and again, as the two temporal superpowers—the Daleks and the Time Lords—battle for the future and the past. People wink out of existence as their history changes, then wink back in, sometimes the same, sometimes very different. Whole areas come and go. Most people can’t track these changes, for they are part of them. Some, a rare and fortunate (unfortunate?) few, can, and Karlen is one of them. She sees these Untempered Time Rents, and remembers, and does not change with the rest of the world.
She works in a munitions factory with many other children—until he comes. She doesn’t know him, but she sense that he is a Time Lord and more, far more, a man of great import. He rages at the factory’s overseers—“Children are our future! They are every future, and we have so few to choose from!” He tells the children to flee. Most are scared of him, and refuse to move. Karlen follows him, compelled by his demeanour. She talks with him that night. She tells him of the changes she can see, and he tells her of the history of the war, and the deep weariness and pain he carries. He has fought all his life—most of it anyway—to save various worlds; but he can’t save his own home, this world that he loves, no matter how much it deserves saving. But this is why he learned—to try. Now, he wishes only to stop Rassilon, to stop the Dalek Emperor, and to bring peace—but first, he has to survive this time and place.
Karlen feels for him. He is a good man, and so weary, and she pities him. Trying to reassure him, she reaches out to touch him, but only manages to touch his coat—and yet she is suddenly assaulted with visions of the man’s past, of another life, crashing on a rocky world, a blue box, dying a Doctor, reborn as a Warrior…She sees his future as well. She sees destruction and devastation, especially here on Gallifrey. She sees a ragged barn, and an ornate box. She sees the Moment, and knows it for what it is, and what it can do. He does not have it yet, but soon will.
But there is still worse to happen here…for she isn’t the only one seeing. At thatr brief touch, the man sees something as well: he sees Karlen in a new light. Her visions of the changes to history were just a story before; now, he understands what she can do, and he wants to use it. She shrinks back from his greed, seeing him as cruel and cowardly, but when he asks for a safe path out, she has no choice but to point it out. The way that she indicates will take him to safety, avoiding the Time Rents. Before he can go, however, a Dalek Saucer appears in the sky, and bombs the nearby factory. There’s no time to save the children—but, he tells her, it doesn’t matter. They will be reborn, perhaps different, in another Time Rent. Everyone is. He leaves, and she calls out to him—first as Warrior, which he ignores, then as Doctor, which gives him pause. He explains to her that people like her are a result of the Time Lock on the War. These temporal changes have nowhere to go, because they are locked into the War, and so they rebound onto Gallifrey, creating both the Time Rents—history’s “antibodies” against the destruction of itself—and those who can see them. She thinks she understands; breaking the First Law of Time, as is happening here constantly, is a great and devastating problem, and even a touch between two of the same Time Lord could destroy things. She tries to pull him back again, and he muses that she is his “what if?” And then he is gone. Karlen is left with only confusion as she dwells on his words—and it only grows, because suddenly, she cannot remember what is true of her own history. It seems that she, too, is now subject to the Untempered Time Rents.
There’s a lot packed into this short story, and for the sake of organization I’m going to mention some references first. Very early, Karlen talks about having witnessed many events of the War, and having seen them rewritten again and again. She mentions the Fall of Arcadia (which is on the last day of the War, so make of that what you will with regard to how time plays out—the events of this story are certainly not on or after the last day); the Horde of Travesties; The Erosion of the Crevice of Memories That Will Be (Time Lord names for phenomena are so poetic); the Rupture of the Schism (presumably the Untempered Schism?); and the Emergence of the Divergence (possibly a reference to the Divergent Universe from Big Finish’s Eighth Doctor Main Range stories). The first two were already familiar from references in The End of Time; the others are new here, and it’s a shame we’ve never been able to see any of these famous events. She mentions the Daleks firing on the Capitol and the Cruciform (with the latter having been mentioned in The Sound of Drums as the event that made the Master flee the War; it’s worth noting that Engines of War has the Doctor returning from searching for the Master. The Cruciform is noted to have been destroyed on the day that Gallifrey fell, but it apparently was attacked earlier than that). She mentions worlds that have been destroyed: Polymos (the Nestene homeworld, destroyed during the Eighth Doctor’s time in the War in Natural Regression, and first referenced as such in Rose); the Zygon Waterworld (Zygor, mentioned in The Day of the Doctor as destroyed in the early days of the War); and Eve (original to this story, as far as I can tell). She mentions Pazithi Gallifreya, the planet’s moon, and states that it still exists (contrary to The Gallifrey Chronicles, but as usual, things can be rewritten—a literal theme of this story); Mount Cadon (home of the Prydonian Academy, the House of Lungbarrow, and the Hermit K’anpo Rimpoche); Mount Perdition (The Master’s childhood home, The End of Time); Lake Endeavour (original to this story, but probably located on the continent of Wild Endeavour, The Sound of Drums; here it is said to be the location of the House of Brightshore), and Olyesti (a Three Minute City of Gallifrey in an alternate universe, The Infinity Doctors, but here implied to exist in N-Space as well). The Doctor talks about why he left Gallifrey—boredom, mostly, plus the desire to see the things he had read about—and about his years in his first life as a Scrutationary Archivist (Lungbarrow). He mentions the Nightmare Child (The End of Time), which will get further discussion in later stories. He mentions his previous returns to Gallifrey, before the War, and he inadvertantly gives Karlen a vision of the events of The Night of the Doctor.
This anthology has done a notable job of balancing the various media of Doctor Who. There have been references to various audios, novels, short stories, and television episodes (I can’t account for the comics, as I have no real experience with them as yet). Of particular interest to me is its handling of the New Adventures novel series. That series is decidedly in favor of the existence of Looms, which has long been a point of contention among fans, and is the major issue with trying to incorporate the New Adventures into the rest of continuity (such as it is). This anthology gracefully regards the Looms as not real, but a rumor, a tongue-in-cheek reference that allows us to incorporate as much else as we like from the novels. It comes up again here; this story is firmly in favor of the existence of the sentient Houses such as Lungbarrow, with several references to the Houses and their locations. If anything, it goes a little too far; the Doctor makes an offhand reference to having had “millennia of study and research” before leaving Gallifrey, which doesn’t fit with his early stated ages, but would fit nicely with the idea that he had lives before his documented First.
The story ends with a curious suggestion:
Before he ran, he shook his head at me. “Fascinating. You are my What If. My path not taken.”
It seems to suggest that Karlen is a version of the Doctor from another timeline, despite being born into a different House. It seems silly at first; but note this exchange:
[The Doctor says] “The Rents are like antibodies, Gallifrey is trying to find a way to cope when two, three, or even a dozen versions of the same Time Lord co-exist in the War simultaneously.”
And he smiled again; breathlessly it had to be said. And I [Karlen] didn’t understand what he was getting at. I mean, I understood what he said, and I understood the gravity of it. If the Laws of Time were being flouted, then… well, everything could be destroyed just by two versions of the same Time Lord touching one another.
Immediately after this exchange, the Doctor stops her from touching him, as if he knows what may result. Indeed, some damage is already done; earlier she had tried to touch him, and only touched his coat, and yet her protection from the Time Rents is already being stripped away, as we see at the end as her memories change. Who knows what would have happened had she touched him directly?
There’s one final item worth mentioning here, and although it’s mentioned almost incidentally, it’s of great importance. This story tells us how the Doctor becomes aware of the Moment, and chooses to use it as his weapon to end the War. In the brief almost-contact with Karlen, both of them receive a quick vision of his future, in which the Moment and the barn in which he uses it are seen and named. This would place this story, from his perspective, after Engines of War; at the end of that novel, he determines to end the War right away, but hasn’t determined how. It fits; at the beginning of the story, he is described as old, with rheumy eyes. While the anthology mostly occurs in chronological order with regard to the War Doctor’s life, this story is out of place; but that is most likely because it is a late addition. It appears only in the final edition; it is the first of three new stories in that edition, and I imagine that the stories were distributed throughout the book rather than added to the end.
Overall, it’s a bit confusing, and there’s a lot to take in. However, it’s rich with references, and gives tantalizing hints not only of what is to come, but of what could have been. Coming as it does, it may be one of the very last stories of the War, possibly directly before the events of The Day of the Doctor–but we’ll see.
Life During Wartime was written by Gary Russell, a man of many Doctor Who credits—author, audio actor, director, and editor. Next time (Tuesday, due to the Memorial Day holiday in my area): Sleepwalking to Paradise, by Dan Barratt. See you there!