Novel Review: Theatre of War

We’re back! Today we’re looking at the twenty-sixth volume of the New Adventures series of Seventh Doctor novels: Theatre of War, by Justin Richards. Published in May 1994, and featuring the Seventh Doctor, Ace, and Benny, this novel remains one of my favorites from the New Adventures (so far, anyway). Let’s get started!

Spoilers ahead! For a more spoiler-free review, scroll down to the line divider below.

It’s not often an empire is founded by actors, but that is exactly what happened on Heletia. Its colonists turned their love of theatre into a drive to conquer the stars, and for awhile, they were successful. Now, though, they are being driven back toward their homeworld by the Rippeareans; and between them and their enemies lies the disputed world of Menaxus. But Menaxus may hold a secret: the ruins of a civilization that loved the theatre as much as the Heletians. Five years ago, an expedition to Menaxus was aborted by tragedy. Now, Bernice Summerfield—in the right place at the right time, at the storied Braxiatel Collection—is joining a second expedition to Menaxus. But with the enemy encroaching, time is short, and things are more dangerous than they seem.

When Bernice is nearly killed by an assailant who seems to be a ghost—unbelievable as that may seem—she summons the Doctor and Ace. As one by one the expedition members are picked off, the Rippeareans arrive in the system; Ace holds them off, nearly at the cost of her own life. Meanwhile the Doctor and Benny race to figure out just what the truth is about Menaxus—and about the war between Heletia and the Rippeareans. Now, if only they can manage to survive until the curtain comes down on this performance…

For what may be the first time in the New Adventures, we have a story that strongly focuses on Bernice Summerfield, and in a positive way! Oh, she still has a near miss or two—she does nearly get killed by a ghost—but for now, she’s not there simply to get tied up/drugged/turned into a zombie/etc. This is, quite simply, her show. (And yes, I know, eventually she will be THE star of the New Adventures after the Doctor Who license is lost, but no one knew that at this point, so the point still stands.) Because, frankly, the series hasn’t been kind to Benny so far. I’ve only completed a few more books past this point, but so far, this book seems to mark an uptick in events for her; she plays a more pivotal role in books to come.

The story picks up three months after the events of Legacy. Bernice, burnt out on the insanity of traveling with the Doctor and Ace, left at the end of that story to join an archaeological expedition to Phaester Osiris. The vacation has done a world of good for her, and now she is bringing the results of the expedition to the Braxiatel Collection, which sponsored the trip. And here we get the introduction of another character who will become a major figure of the Whoniverse: Irving Braxiatel, the owner of the Collection that bears his name. Consider the Collection an asteroid-sized museum with entirely too much money and fingers in too many pies. The TARDIS wiki says that Braxiatel’s first appearance was in Legacy, but I don’t recall him appearing there; I expect it was just a mention at the end. (The Braxiatel Collection was first mentioned all the way back in City of Death, in a throwaway line by Romana in Part One.) That makes Theatre of War his first appearance of any substance. At any rate, this story is Benny’s first meeting with him (although not his first meeting with her; see continuity, below). Whether it’s the start of a beautiful friendship remains to be seen. (It’s also noted that he has a connection to the Doctor, but I won’t get into that now—it isn’t spelled out, and there will be other stories that dig into it.)

The story is fascinating to me, as well, because it’s perhaps the first story where the Seventh Doctor is truly outplayed. I won’t spoil who manages it, or how, but suffice to say that it’s not a bad ending; it’s simply not the ending the Doctor wanted.

It seems strange to say it this way, but I feel like this version of the TARDIS team seems to work together better when they’re separated. That is, each person has an assignment to carry out, and their own relevant story thread; but those threads together display a degree of teamwork that was missing for a long time. Some of that was probably deliberate; Ace, Benny, and the Doctor couldn’t get along for their first dozen or so adventures together, and had to learn to not only work together, but to tolerate each other. They seem to have finally hurdled that obstacle—there will be occasional misunderstandings going forward, but no actual fights in the immediate future. Indeed, most upcoming books will scatter the characters out before bringing them back together to solve the issue of the day.

Continuity references (in addition to those mentioned above): Braxiatel’s first meeting with Benny, from his perspective, is documented in Dragon’s Wrath and Disassembled; his connection to the Doctor is revealed in Tears of the Oracle. The Doctor mentions the Eye of Orion (The Five Doctors); the Black Hole of Tartarus (Terror of the Vervoids), the events of The Chase; meeting Kublai Khan (Marco Polo); Metebelis III (The Green DeathPlanet of the Spiders, et al.); the experiential grid on Argolis (The Leisure Hive), and the Eternals in their yachts (Enlightenment). The projector in the Menaxan theatre contains a performance of Love’s Labour’s Won (The Shakespeare Code); we will see the print version make an appearance in the next novel, All-Consuming Fire. (Incidentally, I love when the new series picks up on tiny bits of trivia like this and turns them into foreshadowing; the play is the entire point of The Shakespeare Code.) Braxiatel also has a blotter referring to him as “Custodian of the Library of St John the Beheaded”; we’ll see that library in great detail in All-Consuming Fire. The expedition to Telos is mentioned (Tomb of the Cybermen). Benny’s locator is tracked via the TARDIS’s Time Path Indicator (The Chase). The Collection contains statues of Lavithian Graffs (The Ribos Operation). Phaester Osiris is the homeworld of Sutekh, and was destroyed (though not completely, just in the sense of civilization) by him (Pyramids of Mars). The Doctor references Borusa, though not by name (The Deadly Assassin).

Overall: Well, I’ve already said that this is one of my favorites. I don’t think it’s generally regarded as a turning point in the series, but that is how it seems to me; and while I’ve only finished a few books beyond this one, the promise of that turning point seems to be carried out. Highly recommended. It helps to have read at least Legacy, for the background on why Benny is away from the TARDIS at first, but I won’t call it necessary. Check it out!

Next time: The Doctor and his companions meet the most unlikely of historical figures: Sherlock Holmes and John Watson! We’ll be looking at All-Consuming Fire, by Andy Lane. See you there!

A prelude to Theatre of War can be found here. An audio adaptation of Theatre of War may be purchased from Big Finish Productions 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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