Prose Review: Defending Earth Charity Anthology, and “Swinging Londons” by Jon Black

We’re back, with another Doctor Who charity anthology review! Today we’re continuing our tour of the Sarah Jane Smith anthology, Defending Earth. You can catch up on previous entries starting here.

Defending Earth (Cover)

A quick—and very relevant—apology: I set out to post one review per weekday for the duration of this project; but, and I am sorry, I’ve already got behind on that goal. There’s a very good reason for that, though, which brings us to today’s entry. The story we’re visiting is Jon Black’s Swinging Londons; and this massive entry is the single longest contribution to the anthology. I’m reading the ebook version, and so my page numbers won’t match up to the print edition; so I’ll say that the story comprises more than a fourth of the entire anthology. As you can imagine, with my day job as well, this story took me some time to finish. I think you’ll see, though, that it was worth the time! The editor, in her introduction, compliments the author on his grasp of historical fiction, his primary field; and in this story, that specialty pays off. I agree with her assessment that the story should take all the time it needs, both in the writing and the reading.

As a reminder, this review will include spoilers, including a plot summary—you can see the first post for my reasoning as to why. Also, at the end, I’ll include a link to purchase the anthology, and a link to the charity it supports. With that said, let’s get started!

Black Title Card

1972: Sarah Jane Smith finds herself stranded in a traffic jam on the M4 motorway. When her curiosity gets the better of her, she makes her way to the front, and finds a UNIT roadblock. Ahead, London can be seen—or rather, can’t be seen, as it lies under an enormous dome of energy. Sarah is caught completely off guard by the sight of a dragon flying out of the dome! The dragon is quickly dispatched by UNIT troops, and Sarah—by order of Brigadier Alistair Lethbridge-Stewart—is whisked away by helicopter to one of UNIT’s bases. There she rejoins the Doctor for a briefing, in which the truth is revealed: London is the center of a large temporal anomaly. The Doctor compares it to a child’s tower of blocks; but in this case, the blocks consist of various alternate realities, other versions of London from throughout the multiverse, each of which is a product of a different chain of historical events. Those realities are continually swapping—or “swinging”, as Sarah will come to think of it—into the place of her own London. If left unchecked, the rate of swinging will increase, until a threshold is reached, and either one reality—not necessarily their own—remains, or all realities collapse into nonexistence.

Naturally, the Doctor has a plan to stop it, or rather, the beginning of one; but it will require entering the disturbance to map the temporal coordinates of eleven different realities, one for each of the eleven dimensions of spacetime. He wants Sarah Jane to join him.

Inside London, the Doctor begins his project, using a dimensional compass to map the coordinates. However, upon the first swing to a new reality, he is separated from Sarah. She finds herself progressing through various Londons, each time only retaining fragments of her memory, each time blending in and yet sure that something is not right here. Several times, a strange, cloaked figure tries to reach her; she only escapes when the next swing happens.

Sarah finds herself trapped for a longer period—days? Weeks? She doesn’t know—in a reality where mammalian life never arose. There she befriends a large, semi-intelligent horseshoe crab, calling it “Arthur”; and there her memories at last reassemble themselves. Ever after, she will experience some disorientation in various Londons, but she will never again lose herself. However, there is a problem: She appears to have stopped swinging to different Londons. She waits until she grows desperate; and suddenly the swings begin again. To her surprise, Arthur is transported along with her, having forged a bond with her. To her further shock, after a few swings, Arthur no longer stands out, and the locals—regardless of the reality—accept him as a native.

Sarah and Arthur at last manage to reconnect with the Doctor, in the company of no less a worthy than Salvador Dali, who is strangely aware—on his own—of their status as time travelers. The Doctor explains that he has discovered that they were separated because he is not a native of London; but he has created a garment that will “trick” the anomaly into treating him as one; therefore the problem of separation is resolved. Dali, meanwhile, helps them get back on track with their mapping, before the next swing pulls them away.

Along the way, Sarah makes friends of a band of Celtic warriors with a bizarre mix of modern and archaic weapons—rifles alongside swords. Later, she and the Doctor are at last intercepted by the hooded, cloaked figure—who reveals herself to be a strangely pallid version of Sarah Jane herself! The Doctor promptly dubs her Two, referring to his own Sarah Jane as One. The woman explains that she believes the anomaly stems from her own version of London. In that world, the sun has grown dim due to an apparently natural disruption in spacetime which is siphoning off its hydrogen. Over the two hundred years since, humanity has adapted to the dark and cold; their bodies have grown pale in the dimness, and their cities have become domed hives, Archologies as they are called, in which humanity tapped first the declining solar power, and then geothermal heat, to survive. But it wasn’t enough; and then, a group of scientists learned to tap the power inherent in the fabric of reality itself. More specifically, they tapped the potential power in the fabric of other, potential realities; all the while, their Director, who leads Archology One (their London), denied that those realities actually exist, or could be inhabited. Frustrated, Linus Venkatagiri, a scientist of Two’s acquaintance, conspired with Two to prove that the realities are inhabited—and thus endangered—in the only way available: By hijacking some of the generating apparatus to send Two into them to bring back proof.

The Doctor and Sarah’s completed mapping project confirms her words. Using the TARDIS, the Doctor takes Sarah Jane, Two, and Arthur back to Archology One, where they connect with Linus. The group lays plans to stop the energy-harvesting project before the realities collapse; but they are captured by the Director’s Security forces, led by a general…one General Alicia Lethbridge-Stewart, that is. Sarah Jane is shocked to see that the Brigadier’s counterpart is a woman, but keeps it to herself.

Confronted at last by the Director, the group tries to persuade him to stop the project, but the request is denied; the Director is willing to save Archology One at any cost, even that of millions of other Londons. He orders them executed; but with the help of General Lethbridge-Stewart, who has not trusted the Director for months, they escape.

The Doctor and Linus concoct a plan. If they can realign the harvesting system to draw power from one world only, they can create a stable tunnel to that world, allowing time for society to relocate and resettle. There is even a likely candidate world: Arthur’s world, uninhabited by humans. However, the Director will never allow it to happen; and so they plan to defend themselves. Gathering allies—a ragtag group of loyal Security forces, a group of janitors with criminal pasts, and Sarah Jane’s Celtic friends, plucked from their own London—they fall back to the control facility for the harvesting system, located in an old, well-defended manor.

The attack comes soon after, and Sarah Jane finds herself in the unexpected position of directing part of the battle. After all, this is a world that has been at peace for a very long time, and its people have a weak grasp of tactics. Ultimately, the defenders are pushed by sheer weight of numbers back into the corridors outside the control room, and at last into the control room itself. Hand-to-hand combat ensues, with even the Doctor and Arthur getting into the fight; but defeat seems imminent—until Linus throws the final switch…

Much later, the Doctor sits in conference with the Brigadier and other members of unit. Reality has been restored; the bridge between Archology One and Arthur’s world has been opened. The Director has been deposed, and plans are underway to transplant the population of Archology One’s dying Earth to their new home. But all is not well; Sarah Jane and Arthur remain missing. As the Doctor relates, the completion of the bridge occurred after the “event horizon” of the breakdown of realities. While it successfully restored things to normal, there was a momentary burst of reality-swinging at the moment of activation, in which anyone native to London—but not Archology One—would be hurled out at random into the mass of realities. The Doctor had already shed his native-illusion garment, in order to remain in place to ensure the completed transition; but Sarah Jane, Arthur, and the surviving Celtic warriors, all were lost in that moment. He has been searching for nearly a month for her, but has yet to find her.

He has just mentioned his plans to memorialize her, when the door of the conference room opens, and Sarah Jane enters, with Arthur at her heels, and with a story to tell.

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If I may draw an analogy which will be familiar to fans of Big Finish Productions’ Doctor Who audio dramas, I would consider this story to be the UNIT: Dominion of this anthology. The parallels are obvious: UNIT involvement, parallel realities, strange creatures, alternate versions of familiar characters…and of course, this is the longest entry, while UNIT: Dominion is Big Finish’s longest Doctor Who audio to date. I mean this comparison in the most complimentary way; I found this story to be very enjoyable. My summary above, constrained by time, would give the impression that this story is cramped and tumultuous, but it is neither. I think it’s fair to say that the length of the story is exactly what is needed to tell this story properly.

I’m a fan of the UNIT stories, and especially the classic stories involving the Brigadier, Benton, and the rest. I admit that when I started this project, I was not expecting any such stories; I expected anything directly involving the Doctor to be at a minimum, as the anthology focuses on Sarah Jane. This entry came as a pleasant surprise. In it I saw parallels with other stories: there’s a bit of Inferno from television, a bit of Genocide from the Eight Doctor Adventures novel line, a bit of Time Tunnel from the Short Trips audio range… At the same time, the story never copies from any of those sources. That’s the beauty of writing in this universe: there’s a wealth of material, and there will always be pleasant echoes, while at the same time having no need to imitate.

I will admit to having some trouble with the portrayal of the Doctor here—and, in conjunction with that, with placing the story in relation to the television series. Very late in the story, we for the first time get a description of the Doctor that can be positively identified; with a description of his white hair and clothing, it’s clearly indicated to be the Third Doctor. However, his behavior throughout the story, as well as his speech, is much more like the Fourth Doctor. For reference, I rewatched a few Fourth Doctor episodes (mostly Season 17) while reading, and found I could almost not picture anyone else in this story. Further complicating this is that Harry Sullivan is present at the briefing near the beginning of the story, which is also attended by Sarah Jane and the Doctor; Harry, of course, didn’t join the cast until Robot, the Fourth Doctor’s first story, and I am reasonably certain that the Doctor was unfamiliar with him prior to that story. Also, the chameleon circuit on the TARDIS works, albeit in limited fashion; it was the Fourth Doctor who would much later attempt to repair it, not the Third. I can only imagine that these are just mistakes on the author’s part, and they don’t greatly impact the story—I have no desire to split hairs over this—but they did make it harder to picture the Third Doctor in the role.

Still, as problems go, that one is minimal; and it’s the only issue I had. The story was a slow starter for me, but picked up quickly, and once truly begun, I found it hard to put it down.

There are a few bits of humor and meta-humor worth mentioning here. I mentioned that the story is set in 1972; but the society of Archology One is ahead of its time, complete with smartphones (under a different name) and even a form of the internet…that apparently includes a version of Reddit (!), as Two uses the term “TL;DR” at one point (with Sarah Jane laboring over what it means). (Full disclosure: I’m aware that the term, meaning “Too Long; Didn’t Read”, predates Reddit; but these days it’s almost ubiquitously associated with Reddit, and I can only assume the author had Reddit in mind when he included it.) Elsewhere, when Sarah Jane and her doppelganger suggest that the Doctor refer to them as “One” and “Two”, he snarkily comments about it:

“That’s not a little demeaning and dehumanizing?” the Doctor asked, “Referring to different incarnations of the same individual only by number?”

Point well taken, Three. Point well taken.

Overall: This story alone will make the anthology worth a look (though not to discredit the other stories, of course). It’s a fun, fast-moving, fast-shifting, self-aware story that features a great cast, sometimes in unexpected roles and places. Occasionally it may move a bit too fast, but those moments are rare; just enough to suggest that it would be just as good if lengthened into a novel. I’m not familiar with Jon Black’s other work, but I would be pleased to see him carry on producing material here in the Whoniverse.

Next time: Back to the shorter entries, we’ll check out Flow, by Niki Haringsma. See you there!

Defending Earth: An Unofficial Sarah Jane Smith Charity Collection is edited by M.H. Norris, and is produced in support of the Cancer Research Institute, researching the immune system as a weapon in the battle against cancers of all types. You can find the Cancer Research Institute here, and you can purchase the anthology here. The anthology is currently available in ebook formats, and is available for preorder in a print edition.

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