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 contemplates his reflection, and muses on his life. He has aged, and with far less grace than he may have preferred. It has been a long time since he had that experience; his second and third incarnations were born old, so to speak, and had the vitality of youth encapsulated in the appearance of age. Only his first body lived long enough to age and wear thin, and he has had centuries and many lives since then. It is a most unwelcome feeling…but his life is not over yet, and there is a little left to do.
Or perhaps not—if he doesn’t survive this mission. He has come to Howth’s World at the behest of the Time Lords. He does not trust them any longer; Romana is dead, and Rassilon is in power, and they cannot be trusted any more than the Daleks. Still, this mission—to destroy a cursed mirror on a world under Gallifrey’s umbrella—is, perhaps, if one looks hard enough, something the old Doctor would have done; and the voices of his past lives in his mind reinforce this. So, here he is, standing beside a local woman named Lucia, the tavern owner who contacted the Time Lords about this artifact with forty years of history in her family—this mirror. She claims that it twists anyone who looks into it, makes them aggressive, makes them afraid; and, the War Doctor admits, perhaps there is something to it, curse or not. For he looks into it, and in his own reflection, he sees his own embrace of the warrior within, his love of the fight, of the victory. He sees his hatred of the enemy, and his own bloodthirst. He doesn’t want to face it, but it is there—and there is more. Behind himself, he sees his past lives; but they are twisted now, filled with rage and pain. His demonic second life, scarred and manic. His third, cunning and bloodthirsty. His fourth, twisted into a leering fascist. His fifth, dressed for combat, and sporting a knife. His sixth and seventh, fused together, the seventh killing the sixth while both laugh in their insanity. His eighth, wounded and dying, his jaw torn off.
It is then that Lucia reveals herself, as well. It is a trap she has set for him—not for the Time Lords, for it is they whom she serves. Rather, it is a trap for the Doctor, for all of his selves. The mirror is a Time Lord creation from the Omega Arsenal—as the reflection of his first life tells him. That worthy presence now sports hair of silver, twisted by the Cybermen against whom he once lost his life. This presence tells him that Rassilon does not trust the Doctor any longer; the War Doctor fights, but not for the aims of Rassilon. But these, these twisted reflections—they can win the war, for Rassilon, for the Time Lords Victorious. All the War Doctor must do is smash the mirror…and let them out. After all, there’s a part of him that wants it.
Later, he dwells on how our reflections may not always show what we want to see. In his wake, he leaves behind the destruction of a small room…and the tavern that held it…and the town that embraced the tavern…and a continent…and a world, Howth’s World, after he caused its sun to go supernova. After all, how else to wipe out every mirror on the planet? The people, their true selves, were gone long ago, courtesy of the Time Lords, and only the twisted reflections remained. He goes on to cover every mirror he can find in the TARDIS; there’s no sense in letting the Time Lords continue this trick. After all, it was an effective one—but they may regret that it cued him in to the Omega Arsenal. Of Lucia, he thinks only in passing—after all, involving himself with her is something the Doctor might have done, and the Doctor is not here.
This story is one of the three that were written for the final edition of the Seasons of War anthology (following Life During Wartime, and we’ll have one more at the end). It’s a matter of saving the worst for last—not worst in terms of quality, for it’s an excellent story, but worst in terms of the events of the Doctor’s life. Prior to his use of the Moment, I think it would be hard to top this story for horror. My only complaint—and I’ll go ahead and get it out of the way early—is that the statement that the Time Lords got to the people of Howth’s World long ago mitigates the seriousness of the story. If the Doctor’s destruction of the planet doesn’t cost innocent lives, then it’s not really monstrous at all, is it? But if we ignore that one line, then this story becomes monumental. The War Doctor becomes the monster we’ve always heard him say he is. This is it—this is rock bottom, and everything from here to the end is just set dressing on the way to the Moment. (It’s very good set dressing, and I certainly won’t treat any upcoming story worse for having come in the interval, but for his character development, we’ve reached his lowest point.)
There’s certainly nothing new about the concept of the Doctor facing his past selves in some sort of visitation, and this is not even the most creative rendition we’ve seen (for me, that honor goes to Timewyrm: Revelation until I find a better one). It is, however the most terrifying. We’ve seen the Doctor’s past lives be tortured; we’ve seen them interfere; we’ve even seen him give a past self control of his body for a time. We’ve never (to my admittedly-limited knowledge) seen them be evil. The story goes to great lengths to establish that this is no hallucination, and no impersonation; these beings are the Doctors, though with their evil crystallized and brought to the fore. They’re each a little Valeyard, so to speak, but with none of his grace or logic. It’s utterly terrifying.
The author deserves credit for the details here. In addition to tying this story to the larger Time War narrative (she mentions the Could-Have-Been King and his army of Meanwhiles and Never-weres, as well as the Omega Arsenal and the return of Rassilon), she gives a nod to some other aspects of Doctor Who history from various media. She portrays the Sixth and Seventh Doctors as fused together, with the Seventh killing the Sixth; this is a reference to the novel Head Games, which suggests that the as-yet-unborn Seventh Doctor brought about the death of the Sixth to prevent the creation of the Valeyard. (I should note that this is later dismissed by the Seventh Doctor in The Room With No Doors.) She also says of the First Doctor’s body that it is “the one he was born with”, but then parenthetically adds the qualifier “probably”; this is a nod to the much-debated Loom continuity, and possibly also to the debated (and sometimes discredited) possibility that the faces seen in The Brain of Morbius represent incarnations of the Doctor before the First. Karn gets another mention (The Night of the Doctor), as does Maxil, who is now a Magistrate on Gallifrey. She comments, when thinking about the Doctor’s earliest incarnations:
“…back when being old is what one did when one was young…”
This is a likely reference to the Tenth Doctor’s similar lines, stated to the Fifth Doctor, in *Time Crash*:
“Back when I first started at the very beginning, I was always trying to be old and grumpy and important, like you do when you’re young.”
She also gives us a few new events of significance to the War, though without much explanation: “The Skein Mutiny and the subsequent purge of Gallifreyan Chronology”—an event that sounds, from its name, as though it may have to do with the establishment of the Time Lock on the War, though I’m really just speculating—as well as a battle on Skaro Moon, and an unnamed event in which the time winds of the Vortex threatened to split up Kasterborous. Tantalizing strands, indeed! Last, but far from least, there’s a reference to the Doctor being diverted from the trip he was previously taking, to Earth in the 1990s. This is a reference to the events of the next story, so I won’t spoil it now.
Overall: One couldn’t ask for a better story, and especially when we’re trying to describe the nadir of the War Doctor’s life. He has more tragedies ahead, as anyone who has read Engines of War knows, but he’s reached the bottom already. There’s a lot of sadness, and little good news, left to us after this point—but hang in there. The end is coming.
Reflections was written by Christine Grit. Next time: We’ll revisit a beloved old friend in Fall, by Matt Barber. See you there.