Seasons of War Mini-Review 37: The Nightmare Child

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

The last fleet of the Cybermen hangs in space, its former owners long gone. The Silver Fleet, Ferrousity, the last remnant of the purged timelines that once held lost Mondas, now lies in the hands of the Time Lords. With bastardized TARDIS technology they have turned these millions of warships into temporal dreadnoughts…and now, they launch them toward the Chimera Zone. That hellish portion of space and time, the Chimera Zone, is warped and twisted by the Daleks and the War, a persistent bubble of chaos so great that even whole worlds lose meaning, serving as bullets in the battle. And at its center sits the Nightmare Child.

It is a ship, or a station, but it is so much more. It is alive, and it should not be. It is the spawn of Reapers who erased themselves from existence, now grown and transformed and made grotesque and ghastly, frightening in its power. It is beyond time. It exists, always, with a star as its engine, and both defeat and victory orbiting it (but never at the same time). It is in all times and all timelines. It is a thing of death and destruction, the power to end time and rip it apart and bring the Time Lords to their knees. It is the last, best, most powerful weapon of the Daleks—and it must be taken, or destroyed. Billions of years in the past, most of Ferrousity fights for it; millennia in the future, remnants of the fleet seek victory. And all the while, at the heart of the Nightmare Child—in its very jaws—sits Davros.

Davros has been snatched from the ruins of timelines by the Kaled Sectoriut and brought here, though incompletely. He sits trapped in a spineglass chamber that prevents the Time Lords—via the Black Order of Rassilon and their vermin Augment Flice—from detecting him. Had they done so, perhaps the battle, or even the war, might have gone differently. Perhaps it could have been averted. Yet, here he sits, at the heart of the Nightmare Child, except when he does not. Until the Doctor—the Old Man in the Bandolier, as the long-vanished Corsair used to call him—discovers his presence.

He may be the Warrior, but on this day, it’s the Doctor that leads the way.

“If Davros is within the Nightmare Child, then we ought to rescue him.”

It is not a happy message, or a popular one. Davros is mistrusted and even hated by all, even his own progeny. Confusion ripples through the Time Lord forces. Anger. Even rebellion. And yet, the battle commences. All the while, Davros sits in his prison, appearing and vanishing. He has been here, and is, and will be again, over and over, here in the very jaws of the Nightmare Child.

After a battle that defies description, the Doctor reaches his chamber. Davros himself is embattled, and the Doctor abandons his entire history of fighting this once-man, and reaches out to save him.

Davros vanishes.

He returns, and vanishes again. And again. And again.

Though the Doctor would save him, there is, simply, nothing to be done.

Perhaps if he were still the Doctor, he would find something.

For now, he simply returns to the battle.

Far back in The Stolen Earth, and again in The End of Time, I can remember being shocked at the mention of horrors of the Time War. Nothing on the list seemed more bizarre, outlandish, and frightening than the monstrosity called the Nightmare Child.

The problem with the Time War as a concept is that it promises horrors that we are not equipped to describe. Though the language is less gothic, it’s very much in the vein of Lovecraft’s “eldritch abominations”: beings that are so far outside human comprehension that they may drive the viewer mad. This is what the Time War promises; it’s wrapped up in the very names of things—“Nightmare Child”, “Horde of Travesties”, “Could-Have-Been King”, “Meanwhiles and Never-Weres”. These are the things of nightmares. It’s this phenomenon that has caused so many writers for the television to avoid digging into the Time War (and here I’m just referring to dialog; I realize the series only sparingly shows us the War). It’s well-nigh impossible to do it justice. Even this anthology, as good as it has been, has shied away from tackling the leviathans of the War, instead preferring to give us a glancing view with stories that take place on the periphery. I am in no way complaining about this, because I realize the magnitude of the task of showing us the “set pieces” of the War.

With that said, if this story’s description of the Nightmare Child is not what you expected, understand that it’s still a phenomenal attempt to tackle an impossible task. I personally liked this interpretation: it’s a structure, but with living elements that defy time itself. Throughout this anthology, the Reapers—one of the revived series’ most intriguing creations, first seen cleaning up the timeline in Father’s Day–have flitted around the edges, getting an occasional reference. Here, they take center stage, as it is a corrupted Reaper that creates the organic core of the Nightmare Child. What better way, given the Reapers’ unique properties, to create a ship (or station, possibly) that treats time like a toy? (Only slightly related: The Reapers have always reminded me of another literary monster, Stephen King’s Langoliers, in their consumption of time and space for the purpose of correcting errors. It’s a concept with endless potential for horror in any story.)

The story does appear at first glance to contradict some earlier mentions of Davros and the Nightmare Child. Davros appears to be a prisoner here, and there is no mention of his command ship, which was previously mentioned to have “flown into the jaws of the Nightmare Child” during the first year of the War. I don’t find this to be a problem; in other appearances, Davros has been both prisoner and commander at the same time. If the Doctor, prior to this story (and perhaps even before his regeneration from the Eighth Doctor), witnessed Davros’s ship flying into the Nightmare Child, that would explain how he alone of all the Time Lords knows that Davros is there, as this story establishes. Previous stories also establish that it was during that first-year incident that Davros was believed dead (having been secretly rescued by Dalek Caan). However, let’s not forget that this is a Time War, and therefore this story—though late in the game from the Doctor’s perspective—could still take place in that first year, and indeed in all years. His confrontation with Davros at the end is certainly before Caan’s rescue attempt, but we don’t know by how much. Between appearances here, he seems to age years, implying that wherever he goes, he is there for a long time—which explains why, when he flicks into being here, he seems surprised that he is in the jaws of the Nightmare Child. (This will be a factor in the next story, in which we’ll see—improbably enough—where he goes on at least one disappearance.)

The Silver Fleet, Ferrousity, has now been mentioned several times; and here we learn its final fate. With the Cybermen wiped from existence in this war-bound timeline, the fleet itself is claimed by the Time Lords, and each ship is turned into a sort of pseudo-TARDIS. It’s not surprising, but it’s yet another interesting thread binding this anthology together.

Overall: It’s not the way I imagined the Nightmare Child, but it’s just as good, or better. Any way you cut it, that thing is terrifying. Further, this story sets us up for a fun story about Davros, which we’ll cover tomorrow.

John Hurt Tribute photo

While I have used this rather excellent illustration with many posts, it is this story with which it properly belongs in the anthology.

 

The Nightmare Child was written by Declan May and illustrated by Paul Griffin (see above). Next time: For something different, we have Meals on Wheels by Paul Magrs. 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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