We’re back! And hopefully we’ll stay caught up now! Last time, we looked at #28 in the Virgin New Adventures series of Seventh Doctor novels, Blood Harvest. Today we’re examining #29, Simon Messingham’s only contribution to the line: August 1994’s Strange England. Judging by that cover, it’s going to live up to its name—so, let’s get started!
Spoilers ahead! For a more spoiler-free review, skip ahead to the dividing line below.
Anytime the TARDIS takes its crew to a peaceful place, you can rest assured that trouble is on the way. This newest destination, a Victorian manor in the country, is no exception. Almost immediately, the first person the Doctor, Ace, and Benny meet—a young girl named Victoria (no connection to the former companion of the same name)—is killed by a large, vicious insect lodging itself in her throat. Other deaths are happening elsewhere among the household staff: the groundskeeper is killed by a tree, the gardener by his roses. Ace goes to find help, and the Doctor and Benny carry Victoria back to the house, where they meet another resident, Victoria’s sister Charlotte, as well as the housekeeper. Along the way, Benny sees a man by the lake, smoke spewing from his body.
It quickly becomes apparent that the household have no concept of time, of death, of change–as though they live in a sort of stasis. They’ll learn soon enough, though, as the deaths begin to mount. Meanwhile, Ace finds herself in a village, where she encounters Arthur, another member of the household, who is very unwell. The pair run afoul of Dr. Stephen Rix and his thugs, though Ace finds an unexpected ally in future author Richard Aickland, whose books she once read. She finds Rix to be a sadistic, focused psychopath, determined to punish God Himself for perceived slights against him; when he fails to use Arthur and his burgeoning powers for that purpose, he sets out to find the rest of Arthur’s household and accomplish his aims.
While the Doctor tries to solve the mystery of the house and its inhabitants, he sends Benny and Charlotte—who is now rapidly aging—to investigate the smoking man. Thus they discover another piece of the puzzle: the figure calling himself the Quack, who claims a relationship to the Doctor via the Doctor’s dreams. The Quack invades the house, causing it to begin to tear itself apart; and Benny is struck down by one of the insects that killed Victoria.
But all of this has a familiar ring to the Doctor. As the threads of this story converge—and, fortunately, Benny is saved from an untimely death—the Doctor at last pieces it together: The world of the house, and all its people, is not the real world at all. It’s the manipulated interior of a TARDIS. And not just any TARDIS: this one belongs to an old acquaintance of the Doctor. Her name is Galah, and she is dying.
Galah has a bone to pick with the Doctor, dating all the way back to her school days—and now that her life is ending (prematurely, it seems—something went wrong with her regenerative process), she’s come back to make her final point. While the Doctor has always believed that good and evil are choices we make, an act we carry out, Galah believes them to be a state of being. To prove her point, she has linked her dying mind to her TARDIS, and used its architecture system to create the artificial world of the house, linked to a corresponding spot on Earth like an anchor. It’s static, benign, and good—and it’s utterly failing.
But before the Doctor and his friends can do anything about that, there are Rix and the Quack to deal with. The problem of Rix solves itself; when Rix comes face to face with the Quack, who is now a monstrous and vengeful creature, he is overwhelmed, and kills himself. However, his death becomes the key to the Quack’s power; the Quack is a facet of the TARDIS, and is attempting to absorb everyone inside. Because Rix died before being absorbed, his consciousness is not assimilated, and in death he—now merged with the Quack—gains control of the interior of the TARDIS, cordoning Galah off into a corner.
The Doctor, Benny and Ace escape in their own TARDIS, using it to approach Galah’s from the outside, and entering the control room, where Galah’s dying body sleeps. The Doctor connects himself to the TARDIS, joining her on the inside, while Benny and Ace take a different route in to try to rescue Charlotte and Aickland, the only survivors from the house. They defend Charlotte and Aickland from Rix’s torture; meanwhile, the Doctor manages to rouse Galah to help him, and together, they erase Rix from the TARDIS’s protyon core, destroying him forever.
Galah at last admits that the Doctor was right: Good is a choice, as is evil—a life that one leads, not what one is by definition. She is dying; but at the Doctor’s suggestion, she uses the last of her energy to change Charlotte and make her real, so that she can survive outside the TARDIS. The Doctor takes Charlotte and Aickland back to Earth, the real Earth; they will later marry, and Aickland will write the books of ghost stories by which Ace knew him.
Strange England is the story of a world that never changes—until it does. On the surface, it’s a normal Victorian manor and village; but when did Doctor Who ever stop at the surface? And things are not what they seem here. As the situation deteriorates, things become progressively more bizarre, until the Doctor reaches the core of things—and takes a trip down memory lane, all the way back to his academy days.
We’ve met the Doctor’s old schoolmates before. The Rani, the Master, others—it’s a group of misfits worthy of any adventure. Galah, though, strikes me as a bit of a misfit even with that group—she’s the bookworm among the jocks, the Luna Lovegood among Harry, Ron, and Hermione. She’s a late arrival in the story—we get her name early, but we find out nothing about her until the final third of the book. I feel some affinity for her—I was a nerdy bookworm myself in school, at a time when being a nerd would still get you beaten up. And we get hints that the Doctor himself didn’t treat her well in the Academy—imagine that, the First Doctor being rude!—but he seems to regret it now.
I struggled with this book, I will admit. It was a very slow starter. It redeems itself in that final third, but you have to wade through a lot of meandering to get there. It’s not very surprising to learn that the author himself doesn’t think highly of this book; he’s even gone on record as saying that he hates the ending, and would change it. I should point out that the ending, as he is referring to it, is everything about the character of Galah; originally he wanted the Doctor to conclude that he was responsible for the problems in the House, and simply be forced to walk away, the “ultimate anti-climax”, as Messingham put it.
But that, as it turns out, leaves me with mixed feelings—because Galah and the ending are the best things about this story. I can agree with Messingham that the book isn’t great; but the part about which he is the least happy, is the part that went the furthest toward redeeming the book, in my opinion. There’s something to be said for having these characters live in the shadow of what is essentially their high school drama; to see what happens when someone just can’t let go and move on, and see the tragedy that results.
Oh well; can’t win ‘em all, I guess.
Messingham would not write for the New Adventures again. He would, however, go on to write several Doctor Who novels in other lines, all the way up to the Tenth Doctor Adventures. I have yet to read any of his other works, but I hope to get there eventually, at least with his Eighth Doctor Adventures contributions, and see how far he may have come.
The other major issue that bears addressing here is the use of TARDISes (and I’ll try not to spoil the punchline for those who didn’t read the summary above). It’s not the first time we’ve seen a situation like this—Ace even makes reference to the rather bizarre events of Cat’s Cradle: Time’s Crucible, which are admittedly far more extreme than what we see here. However, I find the situation in this novel to be much closer to the depiction of the TARDIS’s architectural capabilities as displayed in the revived television series, and it’s a nice little bit of unintentional foreshadowing. (Still no protyon cores in the new series, though!)
This story, in my opinion, isn’t particularly groundbreaking for any of our protagonists. Messingham did try to subvert some of the usual tropes: the Doctor runs from a desperate situation (temporarily) instead of helping; Ace gets her fingers broken (temporarily) and thus can’t fight; Benny dies (temporarily) instead of getting captured…okay, she’s also captured, sort of, so never mind that. But, overall, the focus here is much more on the strange situation than on the characterization. It does work, sort of; it’s just that the story takes so long to come together, and so the full effect of that situation is diluted.
Continuity references: Not too many, this time, and some of these are a bit thin. The Doctor believes evil to be a force (The Guardians of Prophecy). Benny mentions the events of Birthright; Ace mentions those of Cat’s Cradle: Time’s Crucible and Timewyrm: Revelation. The Matrix gets mentioned, but this isn’t the Gallifreyan Matrix; rather, it’s the Matrix in a TARDIS, the data system that makes up its programming and personality (The Doctor’s Wife). Bernice recalls the Land of Fiction (Conundrum). Ace reiterates that she’s had enough of Victorian England and angels (Ghost Light). The Architectural Configuration Program is mentioned (Castrovalva, and in the future, Journey to the Center of the TARDIS). The Doctor plays the spoons (Time and the Rani). Benny thinks of the planets Heaven (Love and War) and Lucifer (Lucifer Rising). The Doctor thinks of Jo Grant and Sarah Jane Smith.
Overall: Well, that was…something, anyway. I don’t hate it—it’s no The Pit—but it’s hardly a top-of-the-line entry. It did pick up near the end, and Galah makes the whole story poignantly tragic; I wish we’d had more of that, and less of the wandering aimlessly. But, if you’re into the foibles and secrets of TARDISes, you might still want to check this one out.
Next time: We’ll head back to a more modern (well, 1950s modern) Earth in David A. McIntee’s First Frontier! See you there.
A prelude to Strange England was published in DWM 125, and can be read here.
The Virgin New Adventures series is out of print, but may be purchased from many resellers.