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.
An unnamed protagonist runs and hides. In a dark world, with rain pouring down, he runs through empty streets, then hides in an empty, dusty house. He finds food and drink—a half-empty bottle of wine, an apple, an orange. He doesn’t care for oranges, but he eats the apple. He goes up to a darkened bedroom, once belonging to a child, and seeks a place to sleep. He is nearly captured when one of his pursuers—a strange, one-eyed creature he calls a Sentimonock, its eye emitting a blue beam—hovers outside the window, searching for him. He hides, and it leaves, and he sleeps a restless sleep. He dreams of a majestic party, and a princess in blue, who runs with him as the guards chase him. When he awakens, he checks his map, and runs again. He finds another house, oddly similar, but there’s no time to think of that. He finds wine and fruit, and a child’s bedroom, and is nearly captured. He sleeps, and dreams of a princess, and awakens again… and all this time, he remembers a son he has not seen since the invasion began, and misses the boy, and searches for him. It is for him that he keeps going, as the dreams grow shorter and the days run together.
In one house, he finds a stranger, a man with grey hair. He pulls the man with him as he hides from the Sentimonocks. They make their way to another house, where they find food and wine. The man eats the orange, leaving the apple for the protagonist. He follows along, and refuses to tell his name. One day, the protagonist awakens to find the man has turned on lights and is taking a shower—which will surely draw the Sentimonocks. Aghast, he forces the man to hide, only to find the man has been busy, cleaning up the child’s bedroom in which they will hide. The protagonist can’t grasp it, can’t process what is happening. No Sentimonocks come that day. Afterward, they continue to run, day after identical day—until one night.
The strange man has played along for some time, making no more changes. Now, however, they must talk—and what he has to say is going to hurt. He has the protagonist tell his story—the invasion, his son, the Sentimonocks, the deaths of everyone else. Then he has him tell it again. The second time, it is word-for-word the same as the first. None of it makes sense; but the man will end it tonight, after the protagonist sleeps. When the protagonist awakens, the man stops him from turning on the kitchen light, as he has done every day in every house—this, of course, is what usually summons the Sentimonocks. It makes no sense; the bathroom light, when the man took his shower days ago, didn’t draw them. They only come, it seems, for the protagonist—who now inadvertantly turns on the light. Like clockwork, a Sentimonock arrives outside. They run to the bedroom, as usual, but the man stays where the Sentimonock can see him. A betrayal? No. Something worse. The Sentimonock leaves, and the man apologizes, then explains.
This world, he says, is not real, and neither is the protagonist. The Sentimonocks are not real, either, though they are the image of monsters, combatants in a great War going on outside this world. This is a land of Fiction, a place of stories given life. The man has been here before, and knows how it works. Both sides in the war tried to use it, to create devoted armies at no cost; but the world fell, and burnt. Now all that remains are scraps, bits of stories here and there—like this one. He demonstrates that it’s true—that each day is just a reiteration, another draft. Indeed, they aren’t days at all; all the wandering they have done together has taken about an hour, not the months that the protagonist thinks. Nothing happens except the few minutes covered by the “script” of this story; the protagonist is reset between them. He isn’t going anywhere; there is nowhere to go. Worst of all, neither the princess in his dreams, nor the son he searches for, are real.
The man can’t make them real. But he can make something else: an ending. And this he does. He writes the ending the protagonist needs. The protagonist quickly finds what he has been waiting for: peace; comfort; the good things of the world…the princess in blue—and then, at last, his son, long lost but alive and well. And then, like all good stories, there is an end—and after a last moment of thankfulness to the man, the writer, there is no more.
I grew up in the 1980s, and my earliest Doctor Who experiences were with reruns of Tom Baker serials. I knew there was at least one more Doctor (the Fifth, to be precise) after him, but for several years I was unaware of the earlier Doctors. It was only a few years ago, as a mid-thirties adult, that I first watched any of the Second Doctor’s episodes—and the first serial I saw was The Mind Robber. That story is unlike any other in its vicinity, and indeed unlike very few in the entire canon of televised Doctor Who. (For a great treatment of just how different it is, check out The Black Archive’s critique of the story—no connection to me, just a read that I would recommend). It introduces the Land of Fiction, a realm where ideas are given form and can be constrained by the words that define them. I’ve always felt that it was the first story to truly expand on the kind of character the Doctor is (with the exception of his first regeneration story, that is), by establishing that he’s far more than just a tinkerer or a wise old man—no, he’s capable of the strangest of things. That story left the Land of Fiction in a bit of an unresolved state, with its Master dispatched and the future uncertain. This story picks it up again.
Several other works have featured the Land of Fiction. This story neither confirms nor contradicts them, for the most part; it’s a self-contained story. It is worth noting that the Tenth Doctor later makes a reference to it as though it’s still standing (The Mystery of the Haunted Cottage). If the Land of Fiction, as seen in The Mind Robber, was mystifying and dreamlike, here it is sad and nightmarish. From the perspective of its inhabitant, the unnamed protagonist, it’s repetitive and dreary and full of fear and sorrow. From the view of the combatants in the Time War, it’s a war crime of sorts. For us, it gives us a representative sample of how the War progresses: both sides pick up tools, ruin them in their pursuit of destruction, and then toss them aside, and damn the consequences. It’s left to the War Doctor to pick up the pieces. We’ve seen a bit of that already with Everything in its Right Place, although in that story it was the Doctor who was ultimately at fault. We’ll see it again, most notably in an upcoming story called Reflections.
Mostly, it’s just tragic. It’s a little morbid to try to reason out whether we should feel sympathy for a character who proves to not be real; but feel it we do, and we put ourselves in his place—a parent searching desperately for a child against horrors that will not relent. That’s the point, really, of the Land of Fiction, or of any fiction: we put ourselves in the protagonist’s place. It’s even reinforced here by the fact that the protagonist’s name and gender aren’t given—I’ve called the protagonist male, but that’s only for convenience; it’s not stated, and indeed there’s a little evidence that it may be the other way around. That may make the protagonist a bit of a Mary Sue (or Marty Stu? Hmm), but it’s by design, I think—all the better to pour yourself into the character. If fiction is supposed to read like that, then so much more the Land of Fiction, and rightly so. It’s similar to the way that so many video games make their protagonists a silent shell for the player to inhabit. This protagonist, make no mistake, is suffering; and it’s up to the Doctor to give the only relief possible: an end. If that’s not a summation of war, I don’t know what is.
Making Endings was written by Nick Mellish. Next time: The Book of Dead Time, by David Carrington. See you there!