We’re back, with another Doctor Who novel review! Today, we continue catching up on the Virgin New Adventures (VNAs, hereafter) featuring the Seventh Doctor, Ace, and Bernice Summerfield. Today we’ll be looking at Iceberg by David Banks, published in September 1993.
As I mentioned last time, due to my being a little behind schedule, this and the next several reviews will be a bit shorter than usual, and less involved. I hope you’ll stick around anyway.
As always, there will be spoilers ahead! Given that the books are two and a half decades old, I suspect that won’t be a problem; but at any rate, read at your own risk. And with that, let’s get started!
Here we come to the end of what I informally dubbed the “Holiday Tetralogy”, in which the Doctor wants a vacation. That sounds like such a simple premise; but this is Doctor Who, and of course nothing is that simple. The events of this novel take place at the same subjective time as those of Birthright–that is to say, while Benny and Ace are dealing with the Ch’tizz, the Doctor is on his own adventure in 2006 Earth.
Having split off a portion of the TARDIS into a separate—and alarmingly temporary—craft, the Doctor finds himself aboard the SS Elysium, a new and elaborate passenger liner on a voyage through the Antarctic seas. At the same time, the world is facing a crisis, as its magnetic field is about to reverse itself. Fortunately, there’s a plan! At an Antarctic base—one that is distantly familiar to the Doctor—a team works to assemble a machine that will, in the critical moment, reverse the reversal, and set the magnetic field back to its normal alignment. Unfortunately, no one imagined that under the ice waits a force of silver giants: Cybermen, with a plan to take over the planet. Now, undercover journalist Ruby Duvall must join this strange little man in stopping the plans of the Cybermen…and oh yes, saving the world from a natural disaster as well. All in a day’s work, right?
When I describe it the way I did in that summary, it sounds incredibly clichéd. I had some doubts when I read the cover blurb; but I was pleased to see it didn’t work out that way in practice. The story is engaging; and I have to say that it was refreshing to have a story that didn’t focus on the terrible relationships among the TARDIS crew. In NuWho terms we would call this a companion-lite story; ultimately I think it’s most reminiscent of the Tenth Doctor special Voyage of the Damned. The Seventh Doctor works best when he isn’t brooding all the time, and Ace and Benny (or maybe it’s just Ace; it doesn’t seem to happen as much without her) seem to bring out the brooding in him. Here, it’s clear throughout the story that, regardless of how dire the situation may be, he’s enjoying himself. So, maybe the holiday situation worked out in the end?
The comparison to Voyage of the Damned also works in relation to the companion of the day, Ruby Duvall. (She does, momentarily, travel in the TARDIS; but still, I wouldn’t call her a regular companion.) Ruby is very similar to Astrid Peth from Voyage in terms of personality; perhaps a little more world-weary, as she has a more varied set of life experiences than Astrid, but with the same eagerness to get involved. Like Astrid, she too wants to leave with the Doctor, but doesn’t get the chance, even though he is willing to take her. (Fortunately, it’s not through death that she misses her chance—Ruby lives to tell the tale, literally, as she dictates the final chapter of the book.) She follows a familiar pattern; many of the Doctor’s one-off companions seem to fit this template.
The biggest issue I find with this novel is that it contains several threads which never really pay out. Most notable is iceberg-sculpting artist Michael Brack. One would believe, from the first half of the novel, that he is going to be a major figure, with possible ties to the Cybermen—after all, they’ve used human agents many times before. In the end, though, he doesn’t amount to much, and his big secret—while emotionally significant for Ruby Duvall—feels rather tacked on at the end.
It’s worth noting that there’s a theme in the background of the VNAs, regarding the state of the Earth in the 21st century. It’s generally depicted as a hothouse of resource depletion, pollution, and general environmental abuse, largely due to the actions of corporations like the Butler Institute (not pictured here, but prominent in other novels in the series, such as Cat’s Cradle: Warhead). Ten years ago, I would have mused about how quaint the view was; these days, it’s uncomfortably relevant, with the real-world climate change issue. That theme is the backdrop for this novel as well, though it’s shielded a bit by the fact that this story takes place in the Antarctic; it is mentioned prominently in the early chapters and again at the end, but not much in between.
We can’t completely escape the tropes we’ve built up; this book continues the trend of drawing heavily on past (read: televised) stories. Here it’s The Tenth Planet that gets revisited. The Antarctic base is the same one featured in that story; its new commanding officer, US General Pamela Cutler, is the daughter of deceased Brigadier General Cutler, who died in that story. Both stories feature the Cybermen; but the Cybermen here are not from the Mondas situation addressed in The Tenth Planet, but relics of an older invasion attempt in the 1970s (The Invasion). Other continuity references: The Doctor is reminded at one point of his Sixth incarnation’s multicolored coat. His first regeneration (at age 450) is mentioned (The Tenth Planet). International Electromatics is mentioned (The Invasion, et al). Ruby Duvall will reappear in Happy Endings (if we ever get there, that is). The Doctor mistakes Ruby briefly for Kadiatu Lethbridge-Stewart (Transit). Ruby mentions the Cottingley fairy photos (Small Worlds). Photographer Isobel Watkins and her work are mentioned (Who Killed Kennedy). The Doctor has a vague memory of Daleks connected to a cricket match (The Daleks’ Master Plan). As well, there are many references to previous Cybermen stories, many of which have timeline conflicts that are subject to some efforts at reconciliation.
Overall: Not bad, and I’d even go so far as to agree with the Discontinuity Guide in calling it underrated. The author is an occasional Classic Series actor, having played a Cyberman on a few occasions, and has a great interest in and detailed knowledge of the Cybermen and their history. It shows, as this book makes them a more visceral enemy than their Classic Series television appearances; there’s more of the body horror that we see in NuWho and Torchwood, where we actually witness transformations in progress. It’s worth it just for that; and it’s a nice break, as well, before we dive back into the mess that is Ace and Benny’s relationship (and the Doctor’s, with both of them).
Next time: We sidestep into an alternate universe in Blood Heat, by Jim Mortimore! 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.