Novel Review: White Darkness

We’re back, with another Doctor Who novel review! Today we’re continuing our tour of the New Adventures line of Seventh Doctor novels, with the fifteenth entry, David A. MacIntee’s White Darkness. Published in June 1993, this novel weighs in at 244 pages, and is MacIntee’s first contribution to the Doctor Who universe. Let’s get started!

white darkness cover

Spoilers ahead for anyone who has not read this novel! For a spoiler-free review, scroll down to the next picture.

After events at Lucifer were a bust, the Doctor is ready for a break. He attempts to take Ace and Benny to Key West, Florida, 1915; but as usual, his aim is…less than stellar. Instead, the group ends up in Haiti, 1915, which may as well be a world away from Florida. The island is ruled by the despotic President Jean Vilbrun Guillaume Sam, but his reign is under threat by General Rosalvo Bobo, the leader of a popular rebellion—nothing new in Haiti, but the timing is unfortunate, as both the Germans and the Americans have a vested interest in the tiny nation. The Doctor and his companions are pulled in when they stumble upon some mutilated bodies, and are taken in for questioning from General Etienne, who is loyal to President Sam.

The Doctor quickly takes charge of the situation, and ingratiates himself with the group’s guard, Captain Eugene Petion. He begins an investigation into the deaths, but moreover, into rumors of the dead rising; Haiti has long had talk, and sometimes more than talk, of zombis, but this seems out of proportion. He does not realize just how deep the web goes: for the Haitians are not the only ones present. The Germans have a hidden base on the island, in which they have allied themselves with a houngan named Lemaitre, or Mait for short; Mait’s underlings: the assassin Carrefour, the vodoun bocor Henri, and an American military attache—and devoted killer—named Richmann. With their help, the Germans are seeking to industrialize the ancient arts and potions that the locals use to create zombis, giving them a mass-produced weapon that will bring the war in Europe to a standstill—in Germany’s favor. As well, the American Marines under Admiral Caperton wait at nearby Cuba, poised to invade at a moment’s notice.

The Doctor senses odd telepathic whispers, which lead him to the local university and a doctor named Howard Philips. Philips, in addition to performing the autopsies on the original bodies, has long been researching the zombie tradition; and also, he has found something stranger still. He tells the Doctor of carved stones—now located in the university museum—that seem to date back much, much further than even the existence of humans, and which radiate a strange power. The Doctor sends Benny to investigate the stones; but she is captured by Henri, and taken away to be made into a zombi herself. Mait, fearing the interlopers’ influence, orders General Bobo to begin his attack on the palace. Ace returns with Petion to move the TARDIS to a new location, but they are attacked while en route; she manages to get them inside and pilot the ship to a safe location as instructed. Meanwhile, the Doctor and Philips try to return to the hospital, but are ambushed unsuccessfully by Richmann. Bobo and his men attack the palace, and Sam commits suicide (later to be believed an assassination). Meanwhile, the Marines, seeing their opportunity, invade the island to restore order. The Doctor quickly works his way into their ranks, and begins using them for his own purposes.

Benny awakens and escapes, only to find herself in the underground German base. She learns of their plan to use the mass-produced chemicals, and then escapes through a tunnel to the sea, coming ashore just in time to be picked up by the Marines. Meanwhile, General Etienne is killed by Carrefour.

The Doctor has learned of an upcoming ceremony in a nearby cemetery, to be conducted at midnight, and enlists the Marines to prevent it. He reconnects with Ace, Benny, and Petion—but he will need additional help. He meets and recruits another houngan, Dubois, who is also an Empereur of the Bizango, the island’s de facto council of houngans, who serve as a sort of unofficial law enforcement and court. With Dubois and the others, he visits Lemaitre’s villa, and destroys his vodoun workshop; he also finds a device that is used for amplifying telepathic signals. The device is Mait’s instrument for controlling his new breed of zombis. The Doctor doesn’t destroy it, but alters it to trap Mait’s mind and concentration—but unknowingly, he leaves an echo of his own memory in the device. He also realizes what is happening behind the scenes: Lemaitre serves the Old Ones, beings from before the dawn of the universe, who are disembodied—but who are using Mait and his upcoming ceremony to restore themselves to physical form. As well, the German plan will create an army of slaves for the Old Ones. The battle to end the ceremony just became much more urgent.

Hearing of the explosion of his workshop, Mait and Henri hurry back to the villa, where Mait is quickly trapped by the device. However, Henri frees him, and Mait gains a glimpse of the Doctor’s nature and plans. He sends Richmann to stop them at the cemetery, but the Doctor manages to convince Richmann he and the Germans are being betrayed by Mait. Richmann takes the Doctor to the base, but Mait intercepts him and interrogates him, unsuccessfully. When he leaves, the Doctor escapes, and plants explosives around the base and on a loaded transport ship, planning to destroy the chemicals. Meanwhile Ace, Petion, and Benny return to the cemetery with the Marines and their leader, Mortimer; but Mortimer holds out too long before attacking, allowing Mait to store sufficient telepathic energy in his device to complete the ritual on his own. He, Henri, Carrefour, and Richmann escape and retreat to the base, with Ace and the others in pursuit. Ace demolishes the door of the base, and the Marines invade it, joining battle with the Germans. Meanwhile, Richmann lashes out and kills Henri.

The Doctor chases Mait toward the lowest chamber, where the Old One’s body is buried, sending Benny to keep the Germans busy. She is captured by Richmann and Carrefour; but Carrefour has a crisis of memory, and takes out his long-delayed anger on Richmann. Richmann prevails and kills Carrefour, chasing the now-escaping Benny. En route he encounters Ace and Petion; and when he shoots Petion, Ace kills him with great prejudice. Mortimer is also killed in the fighting.

The Doctor manages to reach the chamber ahead of Mait, where he finds—and sabotages—a scaled-up version of the mind device. He also plants explosives with motion sensors behind him as he leaves, to bring down the tunnels. He encounters Lemaitre, and tries to talk him down; but Mait pushes past him, triggering the sensors and destroying the tunnels, killing himself. The Doctor heads back to the docking cavern and starts an evacuation—and just in time, as the hidden explosives detonate, bringing the project to an end.

In the end, the Doctor recovers the TARDIS, and the group moves on. The Marines, as history shows, will take control of the island, leading to the next chapter in its history. Petion will survive, though he will lose an arm. But the biggest shock is for Ace, who is confronted with the fact that in her last three years she has become a killer—perhaps not so different from Richmann. That is a fate she abhors, but can she still escape it?

White Darkness back cover

I’ve come to informally think of this book as the first in the “holiday tetralogy” (not an official designation, of course). After several difficult adventures, the Doctor makes attempts, over this and the next three books (ShadowmindBirthright, and Iceberg) to take his companions on a restful holiday…with predictably terrible results. Some people just can’t catch a break. At any rate, this book represents one of Doctor Who’s occasional takes on the classic zombie story—and literally, as these are traditional Haitian “zombis”, as it should properly be spelled.

Speaking of those who can’t catch a break, this is another entry in the now-well established tradition of doing terrible things to Bernice “Benny” Summerfield. Here, Benny gets a taste of what it’s like to become a zombi, though she thankfully recovers and escapes before it can be made permanent. She gives as good as she gets, several times fighting off various attackers and captors; but still, no one else seems to get into these situations in the first place. Maybe in the next book… (hint hint, Ace). Benny has had a tougher time since Ace returned; for one, the two women do not always get along; and for another, it’s hard to make anyone look tough beside hard-as-steel Spacefleet-era Ace. It will take a few more books to begin to balance things between them.

At the same time, this is Ace’s story too. When we last saw her, she was in full vengeful Spacefleet mode, taking out her long-delayed wrath on the Doctor and everyone else. Now that she’s got that out of her system, we’re slowly going to see her new persona get deconstructed; and it begins here, as she has to face the killer she’s become. The character of American assassin Richmann is otherwise extraneous to the story; but he’s here to show Ace what she’ll become if she doesn’t get a grip on herself and her future. I find that interesting, because Ace’s arc throughout the television series and early VNA novels was always about getting a grip on her past; now she’s shifted to look ahead. Meanwhile, Benny is the one focused on the past—specifically the matter of her father, though it will be a very long time before that thread comes to fruition.

Although this book itself is sunny enough, it must be pointed out that it occurs at a dark moment in history. The war in Europe—that would one day be called World War I—rages on; and Haiti is in a period of upheaval. It is, unfortunately, also a very racist time in the Western Hemisphere. The book doesn’t shy away from accurately describing the situation; characters sometimes use the word “nigger” and other insulting terms (not our heroes, thankfully), and the whole phenomenon of the racist relations between groups is on display. I was surprised that things were as explicit as they were; books today would tend, I think, to acknowledge the situation in info-dumps, but gloss over it in dialogue. There’s none of that here, and I can’t help wondering if the book would be rejected today. Certainly a story like this wouldn’t make it onto the television series, with family viewing at stake. Essentially it’s a gritty story set in a beautiful environment, and the contrast is jarring but satisfying.

Continuity references: The Doctor mentions having learned hypnotism from the Master—not by name, but by description, and not from any specific story. He wears the brooch given to him by Cameca in The Aztecs, and comments on the situation as a possible turning point in his character. In the same passage, he mentions Ian and Barbara’s return home (The Chase). It’s worth noting—though not mentioned here—that the First Doctor sold it for clothing in The Suffering, published sometime later; he seems to have recovered it. It will materialize again later in Relative Dimensions, as the Eighth Doctor gives it to Susan. The Doctor mentions his time as President of Gallifrey (The Invasion of Time, et al). He is reminded of his experience at the Dark Tower in The Five Doctors. He mentions hearing telepathic whispers (The Pirate Planet). He mentions wishing he had built another K9 (various stories). The HADS is mentioned (The Krotons, et al). The TARDIS translation feature works only erratically here (various stories). Ace mentions injuries from big cats, probably the Cheetah People (survival). Several figures, too common to name particular stories, are mentioned: Davros, the Brigadier, Bessie, Draconians, Centaurans, the Daleks. Drug use for mind control, seen here, is very similar to that used by the Usurians as mentioned in *The Sun Makers. The later novel All-Consuming Fire will indicate that the Old One featured here is Cthulhu, from Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos series. Slightly unrelated, but I should point out as well that “Lemaitre” is French for “the Master”, though this is only an inside joke; the character is not the Time Lord by that name.

There is also a prelude to the story, available here. In it, Paul Richmann returns to his childhood home to kill an old man, presumably his grandfather, in the wake of his mother’s death (possibly at the old man’s hands). He takes a pocketwatch from the man, which is later lost in Haiti. Many years later, the Third Doctor—joining the Brigadier on an excursion for the American government—finds the pocketwatch, and feels something from it, before burying it again. I admit that I didn’t read the prelude before the novel; I didn’t discover its existence until afterward. However, you can read it at the above link.

Overall: I first stated this book more than a year ago, but couldn’t get into it, and put it aside. On a second reading, it was much better; a bit of a slow starter, as there are many pieces to be placed on the board here. However, once it picked up, I had to finish it. While I don’t know that I would call many of the VNAs essential yet, I will say that this book represents the start of a turning point in the relationships among the Doctor, Benny, and Ace. It’s a fresh start, of sorts, and I’m curious to see where it leads.

Next time: Shadowmind, the first Doctor Who novel by prolific author Christopher Bulis! See you there.

The New Adventures series is currently out of print, but may be purchased in previously owned form via Ebay and other resellers.

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