Seasons of War Mini-Review 28: The Ingenious Gentleman

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.

Seasons of War cover

A hot wind rustled the few bits of parched grass that grew across the vast, dusty plain. The distinctive clop of hooves on dry dirt rose against the peaceful silence. A lone figure, riding a travel-stained white horse, came to a slow stop on a sandy hill, overlooking the barren landscape. It looked like a quiet, abandoned planet.

The figure was old and thin, his face worn and wrinkled, sporting a white beard and grey hair which formed a slightly wispy point atop his head. The battered, make-shift armor he wore suggested he had either seen battle, or was expecting it.

A short, round man emerged from over the hillside and came to a stop by the old man’s side. He was riding on top of an underfed old donkey that was only barely able to take the portly man’s weight. He had the look of a long-suffering husband.

“Please Master,” he began, “may we bed down soon? How long must we wander aimlessly?”

That’s right, folks: we’re here to see that famous wandering adventurer himself, that battle-scarred warrior, and his loyal companion: Don Quixote de la Mancha and Sancho Panza! What, you were expecting someone else? Oh well, never mind, that other guy will be along shortly. Anyway:

Don Quixote, as history records, sees giants where Sancho sees windmills. His first attack fails embarrassingly, but no matter; clearly the evil enchanter Friston has turned them back into windmills to thwart Don Quixote. However, there’s something strange inside this windmill: a tall, blue box, lit from inside. Clearly this is Friston’s carriage!

After some time spent pounding on the door, there is, in fact, a response from inside the box. The man who answers looks shockingly like Don Quixote, but Quixote is no fool, and won’t be taken in by Friston’s mirror magic. He affords the enchanter a chance to surrender. He’s taken aback when the man smiles:

“Oh this is wonderful,” he said, hands against his cheeks in a gesture of delight. “I always wondered if you might be one of the ones that turned out to be real. Oh, I’m so pleased!”

So, of course, Don Quixote tackles him, driving him back into the TARDIS console room.

Sancho tries to intervene, but is mesmerized by the difference in size inside the blue box. The box starts to wheeze and groan and–impossibly—disappear, so Sancho runs inside before it can do so. It seems there’s been an accident during the fight, and now the stranger is trying to get control of his box. He manages to stop it from moving; and Sancho makes a break for the door—but stops just short of falling. There is no land outside, only stars and space. The stranger gets him inside and gets everyone settled, and finally they can start again, on better footing this time. Don Quixote, changeable as always, is complacent now; he has decided this box is a holy place, and the man can’t be an evil enchanter, but a noble sorcerer instead. Introductions are made; the stranger says that he used to be called the Doctor, and this is the TARDIS, his home. He confesses that Don Quixote has long been a hero of his, and indeed, just as Quixote changed his name at the start of his adventures, so did the Doctor, long ago. He then takes them back to Earth. Meanwhile Sancho inquires how the inside could be bigger—but it is Don Quixote who explains, oddly enough: it is like seeing sheep from a distance, plus a little magic. Eh, close enough!

Quixote asks how the Doctor will help him on his quest; but when the Doctor declines, he draws the only possible conclusion: HE is to help the DOCTOR. And as it turns out, the Doctor is on a quest: he is searching for a creature, not to slay it, but to get information from it which will be useful in a great War. Who could pass up the opportunity to have the famous Don Quixote de la Mancha and Sancho Panza along for the ride?

And ride, it is! The Doctor rides on Rocinante with Don Quixote, with Sancho following on his donkey, Dapple. After the day’s travel, they camp among some trees, and Quixote shows the Doctor his armor—namely, his helmet. He calls it the Golden Helmet of Mambrino; and he is not at all perturbed by the idea that it was originally a shaving basin. “’Some fool must have melted it down and turned it into such not knowing its true value,’ snorted Quixote. ‘Barbarians.’” If the wearer is of noble heart, it renders them immune to wounds—or so Quixote believes. Reverently he places it on the Doctor’s head, for the Doctor is a man of many wounds. And yet, the Doctor objects, he is not a man of noble heart—not anymore. Quixote disagrees; the Doctor, in facing a War from which he once ran, is not reckless, but courageous. The Doctor sleeps well that night.

He awakens to the sound of Don Quixote trying to address a group of chained prisoners, much to the consternation of their guard. The Doctor awakens Sancho to check on the situation, and they learn that Quixote is questioning the prisoners regarding the creature the Doctor seeks. He concludes that they know nothing; but he wants to discuss their freedom or punishment with the guard. However, when Quixote approaches the guard, he takes fright; he sees not a man, but a monster. The Doctor scans the guard with his sonic screwdriver, and tells the creature to drop the disguise. The creature transforms into a rather nasty creature: a Zygon. The creature attacks the Doctor, and tries—but fails—to use its venom on him. It attacks Quixote instead. The Doctor uses his screwdriver to free the prisoners, who begin throwing stones at the Zygon. It turns on them, but they manage to knock it out. The Doctor is pleased at this, but less enthused when Quixote tells the prisoners to run off—in the name of the Doctor.

The Doctor uses the prisoners’ chains to secure the Zygon, and takes him back to the TARDIS, where they secure him inside. The Zygon came to Earth with a group about forty years ago, and apparently got separated; but it’s just as well, for he is needed. However, Sancho wants to know, how was Don Quixote able to see the truth about the creature? Perhaps, as the Doctor muses, Quixote’s eyes are open where most men’s eyes are closed. He can see behind the curtain, even if he doesn’t understand it.

To his surprise, Quixote fell to his knees, gasping.

The Doctor knelt down in front of him.

“Are you alright?” he asked thoughtfully.

“Many a man would call me mad,” Quixote whispered to him. “I fear I am but a fool in the eyes of others.”

“Don Quixote de la Mancha, I am here to tell you that you are most certainly a fool in the eyes of others.” Quixote looked mortified, as though being read his last rites. “However,” the Doctor smiled, “so am I.”

That, it seems, is as good an answer as any.

The Doctor says his goodbyes, but Quixote stops him. He asks if the Doctor still feels unworthy of his title. When the Doctor doesn’t reply, he hands him the shaving basin—the helmet.

“Our code is the same, Doctor: to defend the helpless, and destroy the wicked. If I am ever to be worthy of the title of Don Quixote de la Mancha, then it will be through the inspiration of men like you. I deem you worthy of your title, and I suspect that one day, you will once again come to call yourself Doctor.”

How right he is. The Doctor returns the helmet, and steps inside the TARDIS. The TARDIS dematerializes, and its occupant goes forth to face his own giants.

I never expected anything like this when I ordered this anthology, I must admit. It makes me glad that the War Doctor’s brief appearance on television wasn’t all dour; the Eleventh Doctor may call his former self “Captain Grumpy”, but let’s be honest: the man could be funny. (“Am I having a midlife crisis?!”) That humor allows us adventures like this one: stories that we shouldn’t take too seriously, even though they’re “serious” in the sense of not being parody. This story does fit in to canon, such as we have anything that can be called canon; Series Eight’s Robot of Sherwood established that sometimes, against all odds, the Doctor does find literary characters to have been real people. Few are as much fun as Don Quixote.

If I may be serious about it for a moment: Don Quixote is clearly suffering from a mental illness. He may not be the only example in Doctor Who (though I struggle to come up with another at the moment), but he’s a very clear example. This is a bit personal for me, because I work in the mental health field (when I’m not writing reviews), and I have several instances of mental illness in my family, including my father (major depressive disorder in his case, to forestall the question). Don Quixote suffers from persistent delusions, as well as visual hallucinations. I point this out because there’s an important detail here that many authors—especially on television—get wrong: Don Quixote knows something is different about him, and knows how he appears to other people. It’s true that sometimes psychotic individuals (“psychotic” here referring to hallucinations and delusions, not antisocial behavior) are so entrenched in their symptoms that they deny there is anything wrong with them—“it’s not me, it’s everyone else!”. More often, however, they are aware that something isn’t right, even if they can’t accept the specifics; and it causes them much difficulty and anguish. I am proud of the writer of this story, Alan Ronald, for treating the topic with both sensitivity and honesty. He acknowledges this aspect of Quixote’s life, which is something that many individuals with these illnesses experience; and at the same time, he doesn’t play along and say that Quixote’s delusions are real. (I’m thinking of the windmills here; the Zygon is a story-specific case.) In real life, and especially in giving care to such patients, it’s hard to maintain that balance. On the other hand, it’s absolutely necessary.

From the Doctor’s perspective, this story is a bit of a trial of the notion that he isn’t worthy of the name. We’ve let him get away with that belief for a very long time; but here, as we approach the end of his life, we’ll see him start the process of examining that view. Unfortunately, we know how it ends; he’ll believe it right up to the moment—the Moment—that changes his mind. Still, he’s beginning to reassess himself here. I find it interesting that everyone sees the good in him—everyone, that is, except him. Even Quixote, whose mind is battered, knows it.

Overall: This story has some of the funniest lines in the book, and some of the best interactions. For sheer humor, it can’t be topped. It may sound strange, but it feels very much like the film O Brother, Where Art Thou? (and I don’t know how you may feel about that movie, but I found it hilarious). A gimmick like this—and it is a gimmick, this taking of literary characters and making them real—could easily be overused; but we’re not there yet. It’s just good fun, even if the author manages—subtly and effectively—to sleep in a great lesson for the Doctor. Well done, indeed.

John Hurt Tribute photo

The Ingenious Gentleman was written by Alan Ronald, with art by Simon A. Brett. Next time: Leaping from humor straight into one of the darkest tales in the book, we look at Reflections, by Christine Grit. See you there!

Seasons of War: Tales from a Time War is now out of print, but more information can be obtained here, here, and here.

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