Novel Review: Tragedy Day

And we’re back! Welcome back to the Time Lord Archives. If you’ve followed along before, I thank you for your patience, as it’s been awhile; if you’re new here, welcome aboard! Today we’re picking up our read of the New Adventures line of Seventh Doctor novels with #24 in the series, Gareth Roberts’ Tragedy Day, published in March 1994, and featuring the Seventh Doctor, Ace McShane, and Bernice Summerfield. I should mention that when I left off this series, I had read several more books than I had reviewed, and so this and the next several reviews will be a bit shorter and more to the point than my usual, in an attempt to catch up.

One last but necessary note. Gareth Roberts is a controversial topic himself these days, due to various comments he’s made over the years, and he has largely been ousted as a writer for the Doctor Who community. However, that kind of personal controversy is not really the purview of this blog; and I am not making any statement regarding his character, personal life, or personal views, or the reaction thereto. Here–and this will be my policy going forward, because we’re going to encounter Roberts again, more than once–I’m only discussing the book. Regardless of his outside issues, for better or worse, his works are part of the series, and we’ll consider them as with all the rest. It may or may not be deemed appropriate to as it were “cancel” a person for their actions; but I’m not going to apply that standard retroactively to their work prior to the commission of the relevant offense.

With all that said, let’s get started!

Spoilers ahead (though not as many as usual). For a more spoiler-free review, skip down to the line divider below.

Long ago, the planet of Olleril was visited by the mysterious stranger known as the Doctor–but, probably not the one you were expecting. Had the natives known about regeneration, they might have known him as the First Doctor, accompanied by his granddaughter Susan. He saved the natives and their world from death by contamination–radiation from a crashed starship would have killed them all. And he took away with him a mysterious piece of red glass, which the locals believed was the source of a curse…

Centuries later, the Seventh Doctor and his companions return to the planet for its famous Tragedy Day celebration. It’s a different world now, with the natives all but wiped out, and a new society descended from a fallen–but not forgotten–human empire. Ace is quickly lost in a refugee camp, and the Doctor and Bernice find themselves the targets of an imperial cult-turned-dictatorial regime–not to mention a celebrity gone mad with power. Worse: the mysterious and transdimensional Friars of Pangloss have sent assassins to kill the Doctor and recover the red glass, the key to their source of power.

Now, the Doctor must piece these disparate threads together, defeat a child maniac, save Ace from being eaten by monsters, and oh yes, defeat the Friars–and all before Tragedy Day reaches its violent end!

This story is, in a word, everywhere. There are so many threads at work here that it gets a bit hard to follow. It’s certainly enjoyable, if only because its pace has to be breakneck in order to fit everything in. It’s everywhere in the geographic sense, too; from the Imperial City on Olleril, to a weapons test site on an island, to a hidden base on a submarine, to a crowded refugee camp, to the devastated planet Pangloss, this story jumps around more than nearly any I’ve seen recently.

As seems to be common in the VNAs, we have a prominent look back at an episode in a previous Doctor’s life. This is the earliest such scene we have, with the First Doctor and Susan appearing sometime prior to their time on Earth–it’s not possible to place it exactly, but then, pre-An Uneartly Child adventures are fairly rare anyway. (We do have earlier flashbacks in previous books, but those scenes concern the history of the founding of Time Lord society, not the Doctor’s earlier life.) We’re going to have several more occasions like this in upcoming novels, so stay tuned! It happens often enough in the VNAs that it’s almost a cliché–and yet, as a longtime fan, I find it hard to complain; of course the Doctor’s life should circle back and intersect sometimes, much as we may meet an old friend and catch up. It’s a way to bring in the past without making multi-Doctor stories even more common than they are already, and I am content with that, especially given that the television series finds it harder to be self-referential in this way. It also serves to show us that the Doctor’s adventures are far more numerous than we seem, which I find comforting; it allows us to account for his odd throwaway instances of name dropping, and it tells us there’s always more to learn.

I don’t often delve into the real-world themes found in these novels–for example, any time they are written with reference to real-world politics. It’s not that those things are unimportant; it’s that the real world can be depressing enough these days, and I like to enjoy these books–now nearly thirty years out of date–as happy fiction rather than commentary. Nevertheless, the commentary is there, and sometimes it’s too obvious to be missed. That’s the case here, but unlike many novels, Tragedy Day doesn’t discriminate; it takes a jab at everyone and everything. War, colonialism, religious fanaticism, television, celebrity–there’s a critique here for everyone! And it’s always well-deserved. The only downside is that there’s not enough time to get as far as solutions, in most cases, so we’re left with the critique and the opportunity to make our own decisions unaided.

Continuity References: Surprisingly, less than I expected this time, especially after opening with a First Doctor reference. But that reference is to a story that isn’t recorded anywhere else, so in a sense it doesn’t count. There are hints at the events of An Unearthly Child, though not very definite. The Monk, aka Mortimus, is mentioned, after recently showing up in No Future. The Rutans are mentioned (Horror of Fang Rock). The actor Crispin has a complete collection of a television series called Captain Millennium, except for a single episode missing; this is undoubtedly a reference to The Highest Science, in which an odd episode of the series was randomly transported to the planet Hogsumm (that novel was Roberts’ first contribution to the VNAs). The Doctor claims to have never met Henry VII, but this is not true; he met him previously in The Sensorites, God Send Me Well to Keep, and Recorded Time. Bernice mentions the nonexistent planet Rhoos (The Playthings of Fo). And, the ruling faction on Olleril, the Luminus, came about as a result of Faction Paradox (Interference – Book Two). And, not specifically a reference, but I feel compelled to point out that the Doctor is still using the Third Doctor’s TARDIS as rescued from the alternate universe; there’s little mention of it here, but we’ll have occasional reminders in upcoming books.

Overall: I know I sound like I’ve been harsh toward this book, but actually I enjoyed it. It’s a mess, but it’s our mess, as it were. It reads quickly, and it’s one of the rare novels in the series that’s very easy to get lost in–I didn’t finish it in a single sitting, but close enough. For me, that won’t happen again until Blood Harvest, number 28 in the series. As well, being fairly low on continuity references–and having finally passed through the Alternate Universe novels and the “holiday trilogy” (as I call it)–this book is easy to get into for a newcomer. So, check it out, if you can!

Next time: We revisit the world of Peladon in Legacy, by Gary Russell! See you there.

A prelude to Tragedy Day can be found here.

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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