We’re back, with another Doctor Who novel review! This week, I’m taking a brief break from the New Adventures series for a special reason. On Thursday, I’ll begin reviewing the first set of War Doctor audio dramas, Only the Monstrous; I had been planning this for a few months, but with the recent death of Sir John Hurt, it becomes suddenly and unfortunately timely. In conjunction with that plan, I want to take a look today at the first War Doctor story to be released after The Day of the Doctor: George Mann’s novel, Engines of War, which sets the tone for the audios and most War Doctor stories to come. Next week, we’ll return to the New Adventures; for now, let’s get started!
**Spoilers ahead for anyone who has not read this novel! This novel is a fairly recent addition to the Doctor Who universe, so read at your own risk!**
It is late in the Great Time War. For more than a century of personal time, the Time Lord once known as the Doctor has thrown himself into the war, destroying the Daleks at every turn—and in the process, losing something of the man he once was. Now, he leads a fleet of Battle TARDISes into combat against the Daleks near a temporal anomaly called the Tantalus Eye—and narrowly escapes as the fleet is destroyed.
The Doctor (and though he doesn’t want to be called that, let’s face it, we have to call him SOMETHING) crashes on a human colony world near the Eye, called Moldox. His arrival saves the life of a young freedom fighter named Cinder, but not in time to save her partner, Finch—Cinder is forced to watch as a new type of Dalek destroys him. But something isn’t right; once he is gone, so are her memories of him.
Cinder goes with the Doctor to the local base of the Daleks; she is reluctant at first, but finds him compelling, for reasons she can only sense, not explain. Once there, they find that the Daleks have created a new weapon: a version of a de-mat gun, which removes its target completely from the timeline as if it never existed. As well, the Daleks plan to seed progenitors of this modified Dalek paradigm throughout history, creating legions of Daleks with this capability. And there’s worse to come: The Tantalus Eye is no ordinary structure; rather, it’s a fold in spacetime that creates a rupture, leaking temporal radiation into the area. The Daleks have used that radiation to develop their weapons; and now, they are creating a colossal version at the eye, which will eliminate an entire planet—and they have aimed it at Gallifrey. In one stroke, they can win the war forever, by removing Gallifrey from history.
The Doctor and Cinder manage to destroy part of the base, freeing many human captives. They then leave in the TARDIS, heading for Gallifrey. Meanwhile, the Eternity Circle—the leaders of the Daleks near the Eye—declare that this setback is irrelevant; their plans are ready to be activated.
On Gallifrey, the Doctor and Cinder are met by the Castellan and a Time Lord politician named Karlax, with whom the Doctor does not get along. They meet with the Lord President Rassilon in the War Room, and the Doctor tells of his discovery. Rassilon calls a meeting of the High Council, and determines to deploy a superweapon from the Omega Arsenal: The Tear of Isha, a stellar manipulator. If deployed, it will close the Tantalus Eye forever, but it will also destroy the dozen human-occupied worlds in the vicinity. Over the Doctor’s objections, the plan is approved.
Rassilon mentions consulting a “possibility engine”, which gets the Doctor’s attention. Rassilon transmats away; the Doctor follows, leaving Cinder behind. He finds himself in the Death Zone, outside Rassilon’s former tomb. Inside, he learns the nature of the possibility engine: His old mentor Borusa, now rescued from entombment, has been retro-engineered into a being in a state of constant regenerative flux. His mind is opened to the vortex, allowing him to see all possible futures, and choose the best among them. Borusa declares that the Tear will work, but that the humans cannot be saved. Rassilon is undeterred by this.
Back in the Citadel, Cinder is captured by Karlax, and with the unwilling help of the Castellan, he subjects her to a mind probe, seeking to confirm the Doctor’s claims. He succeeds, but injures her in the process, and hides her in a hidden room behind the council chamber. When the Doctor returns and cannot find her, he visits the council in a rage, accusing Karlax of harming her; the Castellan caves in and reveals her presence. The Doctor attacks Karlax, but is stopped by Rassilon; he declares he will stop the Time Lords from deploying the Tear of Isha, as it will make them no better than the Daleks if they kill billions of humans. Rassilon declares him a traitor and has him imprisoned with Cinder.
It is Cinder who helps them escape; the Doctor’s sonic screwdriver won’t work on the cell lock, but Cinder’s low-tech lockpicking skills will—another testament to Time Lord arrogance. They elude the guards and escape to the TARDIS, which has been sent to be scrapped. It can’t escape Gallifrey, as the security protocols have been changed; but the Castellan, knowing the Doctor to be right, relents and allows them to leave, knowing he will be punished and possibly killed. Karlax meets Rassilon at the possibility engine and finds that the path ahead is no longer clear; the Doctor’s involvement introduces a random factor. Rassilon sends Karlax, with the help of the Celestial Intervention Agency, to kill the Doctor.
In the vortex, the Doctor finds several tracking devices and destroys them, but misses one planted on Cinder. Karlax tracks them there, and attacks them with five Battle TARDISes; but they are ambushed by Dalek stealth ships and destroyed. The Doctor is able to rescue Karlax, who is about to regenerate; he locks him in the Zero Room. He then infiltrates the Time Lord fleet that is en route to deploy the Tear of Isha into the Eye. He manages to land his TARDIS inside that of the leader, Partheus; after a quick fight, he takes control of Partheus’s TARDIS and pilots it to a star near the end of the universe, and launches the Tear into it, creating a black hole. He releases Partheus, and leaves in his own TARDIS—but still has to defeat the Daleks somehow.
The Doctor and Cinder land in the Death Zone. There they meet several of what Cinder calls “Interstitials”—Time Lords who represent Rassilon’s earlier experiments in creating a possibility engine. They, like Borusa, are in constant flux, seeing multiple futures. With their help, the Doctor liberates Borusa from the tomb, but agrees to let him die if he will help defeat the Daleks. Cinder also sees a possible omen of her own death.
With Borusa aboard, they return to the Eye, and surrender to the Daleks. Unknown to Cinder, the Doctor unlocks the Zero Room before leaving the TARDIS. The Daleks take the Doctor and Cinder to the Eternity Circle. The Daleks there reveal that they have had a plan on standby for the Doctor, whom they call the Predator: they will lobotomize him, removing his memories and emotions, and make a Dalek of him, creating a more deadly version of the Dalek. Before they can act, however, the TARDIS materializes around them…piloted by the newly-regenerated Karlax, who is still tracking Cinder. He attempts to shoot the Doctor, but Cinder jumps in front of the blast, thus bringing about her death as she had foreseen. The Doctor dematerializes the TARDIS without Karlax, leaving him to the Daleks, who kill him.
As Cinder dies, the Doctor realizes he can save her with the possibility engine. He flies the TARDIS into the Eye, risking destruction…but he realizes that if he saves Cinder, he will miss his chance to save the billions on the worlds around the Eye. He know it would invalidate her sacrifice, as well as make him no better than the Daleks or the Time Lords. He asks Borusa, who is now supercharged by the radiation from the Eye, to enforce a future in which the Daleks do not control the Tantalus Eye or its environs, and in which the new weapons and new paradigm cease to exist. Borusa releases the power of the Eye, and wipes all the local Daleks out of existence. The release wipes out Borusa as well.
The Doctor returns to Moldox, and buries Cinder with the remains of her family, whom the Daleks killed long ago. Standing at her grave, he makes a promise to end the War, encapsulated in two simple words: “No more.”
It isn’t obvious until the ending, but this story is set very near the end of the War. How near, exactly, we can’t tell; but knowing the Doctor, it won’t take him long to act on his new resolve to end the war. I personally like to think that, from his perspective, this story ends just minutes before his actions at the fall of Arcadia (*The Day of the Doctor*); but from Gallifrey’s perspective, it can’t be immediately after, as there is no indication that the Daleks are in a position to attack Gallifrey in the manner we see in that episode. Of course, it’s a time travel show; the Doctor can skip around as he sees fit. I do think it’s curious that we never see the General here, or in any of the War Doctor audios I’ve heard so far; he seems to be a pivotal figure on the War Council, but he’s strangely absent. It’s a pity; I like his character.
More than anything else, this story is an examination of why the War Doctor won’t travel with a companion. The bottom line is that he fears losing them; he makes vague reference to having lost other companions and friends, and he directly says he can’t bear to let it happen again. Indeed, it’s Cinder’s death that catalyzes his determination to end the War. Cinder is truly a case of “right person, right place, right time”; beyond just simply being a companion, her personality sparks the Doctor’s own long-buried persona, and makes him want to, if not BE the Doctor again, at least be LIKE the Doctor again. That aspect of his internal struggle—that is, his insistence that he can no longer be the Doctor—is actually downplayed here; we’re already at the end of it, and most of the internal debate is long past. We’ll get much more of it in the audios (where he frequently bellows at anyone who dares to call him the Doctor—there’s none of that here). Here, that part of him is just a means to an end—it gets him to the point of deciding to end the War. In the meantime, he focuses more on the companion issue. Although his time with Cinder is short—less than a full day, relatively speaking—he seems to care for her a great deal, and mourns her death as much as any other lost companion.
This story does a good job of tying in to various past stories. It’s not just fanservice; it’s all well done. The core of the Time War is that time itself is manipulated; and it makes perfect sense, then, that many incidents from the Doctor’s life would be mixed together here in a way that seems almost random. For once, that’s not a flaw, but a feature—it makes sense in context, given the nature of the War. Some examples: The Doctor uses his John Smith alias, first seen in *The Wheel in Space*. He refers to *Genesis of the Daleks*, which the Daleks themselves here state to be the beginning of the war—a theory I’ve always held, but had never seen confirmed in-universe. The Doctor mentions searching for the Master, who has fled the War (*Utopia*). The Doctor refers to his past as Lord President (*The Invasion of Time, The Five Doctors*). Rassilon wears a gauntlet that doubles as a de-mat gun (*The End of Time*); de-mat guns were first seen in *The Invasion of Time*. The Daleks use glass casings as incubators (*Revelation of the Daleks*). Borusa is seen (*The Five Doctors*); other stories have given contradictory resolutions for him. The Moment is mentioned (*The Day of the Doctor*). The Daleks mention various names for the Doctor, most notably the Predator, first mentioned in *Asylum of the Daleks*; oddly, “The Oncoming Storm” is not used here. Various TARDIS rooms glimpsed here have featured in other stories. The Cloister Bell has been seen many times, notably in *Logopolis* and *Castrovalva*. Skaro Degradations, mentioned in *The End of Time*, appear here; they are retro-engineered versions of Daleks with other capabilities. Mind probes first appeared in *Frontier in Space*. Bowships are mentioned by Rassilon; they first were mentioned in *State of Decay*, in use against the Great Vampires. One of the cave paintings made by the Interstitials shows the War Doctor and the Moment’s Bad Wolf interface, standing over the Moment’s flower-like button. Partheus fears a time ram between two TARDISes (*The Time Monster*). The Zero Room was introduced in *Castrovalva*. Temporal torpedoes were first seen in the audio story *Neverland*.
Cinder is perhaps the most interesting character here, and much of the story is told from her perspective (of course, this changes at her death). She strikes me as a bit of a cross between Ace McShane and Amy Pond (and not just with regard to her red hair). She brings Ace’s resourcefulness, devotion to the Doctor, and readiness for action, and combines it with Amy’s variable temper, quick wit, and tendency to leap before looking. Although I understand why her death is integral to the story, it’s a shame we won’t get more from her; she’s quite good as a companion, and I’d like to have seen her grow a bit more. The other supporting characters aren’t as good; Rassilon is pure conniving evil, of course, but the other Time Lords are very much stock characters. Borusa is nothing new, although his real personality is suppressed here; the other Interstitials are interesting, but don’t speak, and don’t get much screen time.
It will be interesting to see how this story relates to the War Doctor audios. Series One of the audios, as we will see, will focus much more on the Doctor’s identity, and on how he feels he is no longer worthy to be called the Doctor. It’s a constant struggle for him; he can’t change who he is, no matter how much he feels he must. He believes himself a monster, but a necessary one. We’ll also see some parallels between Cinder and his would-be companion in that series, Rejoice.
Next time: We’ll return to the VNAs in the novel review series; but as well, in the audio reviews, we’ll look at War Doctor Series One, *Only the Monstrous*! See you there.