We’re back, with another Doctor Who novel review! Today, we continue catching up on the Virgin New Adventures line (VNAS, hereafter) featuring the Seventh Doctor, Ace, and Bernice Summerfield. Today we’ll be looking at Birthright by Nigel Robinson, published in August 1993.
I mentioned last time that I find myself in a combination of conflicting factors. For one, I dropped this line for some time due to burnout, meaning I’m further behind than I meant to be. For another, in the month of September I read a number of VNAs without posting any reviews, meaning I’m now behind on both reading and reviewing. As a result, these reviews (until I’m caught up) will be shorter than usual, less involved. I hope you’ll stick around anyway.
And finally, as always, there will be spoilers ahead! Granted, they’re spoilers for a book that is two and a half decades old, but, read at your own risk. Let’s get started!
Picking up after the events of Shadowmind, we continue what I have informally dubbed the “holiday tetralogy”, wherein the Doctor really just wants a vacation. I don’t blame him; no one in the current TARDIS crew seems able to get along, nor to work through their own issues, and that includes the Doctor. He’s going to get it, too, whether his companions like it or not.
This book and the next, Iceberg, follow a pattern that ought to be familiar with viewers of the modern series: A “Doctor-lite” story, followed by a “companion-lite” story. The two stories take place at the same time (as much as any time travel story can be described in that way), at least from the perspective of our main characters. Here, we follow Benny for about two-thirds of the novel, and then incorporate Ace’s perspective. After experiencing a catastrophic event in the TARDIS, Benny finds herself stranded in 1909 London, where a serial killer is eviscerating young women. Ace lands on the planet Antykhon in the approximate year 22,000, where she finds humanlike survivors waging a resistance war against the ruling, insectoid Charrl, the reputed most noble race in the universe. There, an old hermit named Muldwych assists the queen of the Charrl in her efforts to transport her race through time to twentieth-century London; and all he needs is a missing piece of the TARDIS. The Doctor, of course, would know what to do—if he could be found.
I mentioned previously that we were embarking on what I consider a lackluster stretch of the VNAs, and that is true. It’s a sequence that highlights several plot and character elements that become so repetitive as to be tropes of the series, especially as relates to the relationship between Benny and Ace. But, in the interest of fairness, I did enjoy this book, once it got going. It, alone of this stretch of entries, tries to subvert some of those tropes; for example, instead of locking Benny up (or otherwise disposing of her) for two-thirds of the story, it puts her in the spotlight, allowing her some much-needed character moments. Of course, the downside is that now Ace is out of the picture; no one seems to be able to do justice to both characters together. We do, unfortunately, continue the trend of catastrophically removing the TARDIS from the story (though it’s not as egregious as what’s going to happen in Blood Heat when we get there!).
I liked the Charrl and their queen, Ch’tizz, as villains, largely because they don’t want to be villains; they feel driven to it by the threat of extinction. Their world, Antykhon (which has its own secrets that I won’t spoil), is a colony world that turned out to be hostile to their form of life; within a few centuries they will be extinct. This, in turn, drives Ch’tizz to strike a bargain with the hermit Muldwych to take them away somewhere safe, in exchange for his own freedom. On the other hand, the point is driven home many times that the Charrl are the most noble, most beautiful, most peaceful, most creative race the universe will ever know—a point which seems unlikely enough, but even the Doctor makes it, in his brief appearance at the end. I could have done without this particular bit of trivia, especially on repeat. The secondary villain, Ch’tizz’s human agent Jared Khan, was much more forgettable; there’s a hint of an interesting backstory involving the Doctor, but little is done with it. He could have been removed from the story with no great impact.
Of much more interest to me is Muldwych the hermit. As this isn’t addressed in this novel, I don’t consider this a spoiler; but other materials make it clear that he is a future incarnation of the Doctor, albeit a very odd once. It seems that he may be the incarnation that earned the “Merlin” moniker in Battlefield (although other incarnations have also been known by that name). Although he has made other, subsequent appearances, which confirm his connection to the Doctor, the wiki indicates that Nigel Robinson did not intend for Muldwych to be Merlin (and therefore presumably not the Doctor either). Indeed, the Doctor interacts with him here, and speaks of him familiarly as though they have met before; this would seem to imply they are not the same, as if he were a future incarnation, the Seventh Doctor should not be able to remember any past encounters with Muldwych. Muldwych is cantankerous, devious, and far less moral than the Doctor, and seems to have developed a strong sense of self-interest; so I’m interested to see how he is portrayed in later entries.
Continuity References: We’re swimming in them today! It’s still some distance ahead of us, so I’ll go ahead and say that the Charrl and Muldwych will appear again in Happy Endings. Muldwych refers to 699 Wonders of the Universe; the 700th was destroyed in Death to the Daleks. Muldwych quotes the Fifth Doctor on the subject of tea, calling it “a noxious infusion of dried leaves” (The Awakening). Jared Khan, while following the Doctor through several hundred years of Earth history, ends up in the court of Kublai Khan (Marco Polo), and just misses the Doctor at Culloden in 1746 (The Highlanders). Muldwych recommends Madame Bovary to Ace via the Doctor, as a hint toward an as-yet-undefined future related to events of The Curse of Fenric (I admit this one is a stretch for me; I’m pulling that information from the Discontinuity Guide for this story, but I don’t personally know all the links in this chain of events yet). The TARDIS performs a time ram on part of itself, as first described in The Time Monster; this results in the famous Tunguska event, a massive explosion over Siberia. The character of Margaret is an aunt to Victoria Waterfield (The Evil of the Daleks); Ernie Wright, meanwhile, is implied to be Barbara’s grandfather (An Unearthly Child, et al). There is a bank account holding a large amount of money for use by the Doctor’s companions in emergencies; its five co-signatories are Benny, Victoria Waterfield (The Evil of the Daleks), Susan Foreman (An Unearthly Child), Sarah Jane Smith (The Time Warrior), and Melanie Bush (Terror of the Vervoids). And many more: for time’s sake, I’ll quote the Discontinuity Guide:
The Time Vector Generator first appeared in The Wheel in Space. The Cloister Bell rings again (Logopolis). There is a reference to the Seven Planets (The Pit). The Doctor mentions Susan. He has told Bernice, “sleep is for tortoises” (The Talons of Weng-Chiang) and has told Ace about the Wirrn (The Ark in Space). He mentions the Eye of Orion (The Five Doctors). Deaths for which the Doctor is held responsible include Adric’s (Earthshock), Katarina’s and Sara Kingdom’s (The Daleks’ Master Plan), Sorin’s (The Curse of Fenric), Julian’s (Love and War), and Raphael’s (Timewyrm: Apocalypse). There are references to Draconians (Frontier in Space), Hoothi (Love and War), Special Weapons Daleks (Remembrance of the Daleks), Karn and the Elixir of Life (The Brain of Morbius), Mondas (The Tenth Planet), Rassilon, Jan and Heaven (Love and War), Cybermen, Lady Peinforte and Richard (Silver Nemesis), Ace’s trip through a time storm to Svartos (Dragonfire), the Hand of Omega (Remembrance of the Daleks), Vicki, Steven, Nyssa, and Peri.
Overall: I actually wanted to hate this one, but I was pleasantly surprised. It’s a nice break in the midst of a lot of repetition. Just by nature, the next book will be similar, as it’s hard to have tropes about the companions without the companions. In a very real sense, the two books are halves of a whole. After that it will be back to business as usual for five books at least. Doctor-Lite and Companion-Lite are formats that I hope we see again in the novels.
Next time: We’ll get the rest of the story in Iceberg, by David Banks! 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.