Novel Review: Cat’s Cradle: Witch Mark

We’re back, with another Doctor Who novel review! This week, we’re reading the final volume in the Cat’s Cradle trilogy and seventh Virgin New Adventures (VNA) entry, Cat’s Cradle: Witch Mark. Written by Andrew Hunt and published in June 1992, this novel features the Seventh Doctor and Ace. Let’s get started!

Spoilers ahead for anyone who has not read this novel!

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The recent damage to the TARDIS has spread, and the time capsule is dying.  To live, its link to the Eye of Harmony on Gallifrey must be restored, and to that end, it needs an adaptable organic material that it can mold to its purposes.  It takes the Doctor and Ace to 1992 Wales, to the town of Llanfer Ceiriog, where the Doctor has old friends, Hugh and Janet.  The local couple takes them in for rest and recovery…but strange happenings are afoot.  Local veterinarian Stuart Taylor is called to help deliver a foal, but finds a strange, severed horn—is the horse really a unicorn?  An old local called Old Davy is aware of something strange coming, but what?  A new community has appeared in London, composed of strange, secretive people with no known identities—and a busload of them have met their deaths in a crash, all dressed the same, all without identification, all carrying briefcases full of money, and some of them bearing strange triangular birthmarks on their necks.  Inspector Graham Stevens, the only member of Scotland Yard’s Paranormal Investigations team, is on the case—and the bus’s owner, one Selwyn Hughes, who died in the crash, is a resident of Llanfer Ceiriog…

The Doctor and Ace locate a strange stone circle.  It is located in a ruined old village called Dinorben, on land owned by Emrys Hughes, the brother of the deceased Selwyn.  Hughes is a surly old man, and threatens them, forcing them to return secretly later…and Ace stumbles through the circle’s gate, dragging the Doctor with her—into another world.

The mystical world of Tír na n-Óg is also dying.  It is inhabited by five races—humans, the Firbolg centaurs, the troll-like Fomoir, the hobbit-like (and fox-like) Sidhe, and the Ceffyl, or unicorns.  Once its sky carried two suns: the bright, lifegiving yellow of Dagda’s Wheel, and the dim red of Arawn’s Wheel.  Now, Dagda’s wheel has vanished, and the land grows cold and inhospitable.  Goibhnie, the world’s one-time benefactor, has turned evil, and has unleashed demons to lay waste to the five races.  The humans, with their fortress valley of Dinorben enclosing a stone circle, mean to escape through the circle’s gateway to the mythical world of Earth, from whence their forefathers came.  In forming this plan, they have abandoned their allies in the other four races, fearing that the presence of the other races on Earth will expose them and bring their doom; and now they find themselves in a standoff with their former allies at the walls of Dinorben.  The Doctor and Ace find themselves in this strange world via the stone circle, where they are quickly taken captive.  At the decision of the humans’ ruling council, the Tuatha de Danaan, they are sentenced to travel across the land to find Goibhnie and try to restore his sanity as well as Dagda’s Wheel—a mission of certain suicide, but their only option.

Llanfair Ceiriog has other guests as well.  An American student, David Gibson, once visited the village in his childhood; now he has returned, with his friend Jack, for a vacation.  Tramping around in the woods, David and Jack find something shocking: a centaur, wounded and dying, lying by a stream.  Jack goes for the village vet, leaving David behind; he does not find the vet, but instead encounters the village constable, also by the last name of Hughes.  Returning to the site, Hughes sets fire to the dying centaur, and drives Jack and David away.  Enraged, they attempt to file a report, but are unsuccessful.  Meanwhile, Stevens has his own unsuccessful encounter with Constable Hughes; as well, he has had a tip from the vet, Stuart Taylor, about the unicorn—but the vet is missing.  Elsewhere, the Doctor and Ace return to Hugh and Janet’s farmhouse, but something is wrong—and in the night, Hugh and Janet find that they are not who they seem at all.  Instead, they are monsters, who possess Janet and Hugh.

The Doctor and Ace begin their journey.  They first encounter an army of Firbolg, the centaur people, but are allowed to pass when their errand is established.  They find a human child with a crippled arm, named Bathsheba, who tells them of the death of her family and the devastation that has come on the land; they take her along with them.  They encounter a strange being named Herne in the forest, who seems to know some of the future, and apologizes for things he will soon do to the Doctor.  They are captured by a band of Sidhe, but are freed when the Sidhe themselves are attacked.  They are again attacked, this time by one of the demons that roam the land; a human chieftain named Chulainn rescues them.  Chulainn explains that he is gathering human survivors to go to the safety of Dinorben to join the evacuation.  At the Doctor’s request, he agrees to take Ace and Bathsheba with him, and the Doctor slips away to continue the quest.  However, Bathsheba follows him, and by the time he discovers her, he is too far away to turn her back.  Ace doesn’t take abandonment well, and leaves to go after the Doctor, forcing Chulainn to chase her down.  While he is away, the camp is attacked by demons, and everyone is slaughtered, including Chulainn’s wife and unborn child.  Grieving, he burns the bodies of the humans, but not those few with a triangular birthmark on their neck; those, he says, are witches, who betrayed the humans.  Leaving for Dinorben, they are intercepted by a unicorn named Bat, who forges a telepathic bond with Ace.  Chulainn sees only an enemy; but Ace sees an ally, and chooses to leave with Bat.  She meets Herne as they travel; he appears to be dying, but his body has a strange effect—it radiates anti-chronons, causing anyone close by to age backward.  It was he who attacked the Sidhe camp, allowing them to escape.  Ace joins the Ceffyl herd, and they agree to travel back to Dinorben and attempt to escape to Earth, where they will try to obtain help in repelling the demons and restoring Tír na n-Óg.  Ace uses her Nitro-9 to blow a hole in Dinorben’s wall, and the unicorns charge the stone circle, aiming for the gateway to Earth.

David and Jack camp in a field for the night, but are awakened by figures in robes, who take David away in a van.  Jack runs into the road and is nearly run over; fortunately, it is Inspector Stephens whom he has encountered.  After a hurried explanation, Stephens and Jack chase down the van, but lose sight of it long enough for the occupants to escape.  They return to the village, and, with no options, call it a night.  In the morning, they go in search of clues, and Jack shows him the site where the centaur was burned…and the smell of smoke leads them to a clearing where the robed figures are about to burn David to death.  They disperse the group, and free David, who tells them that the figures were going to kill him due to a birthmark on his death—the same mark that the witches in Tír na n-Óg bear, though David does not know it.  They confront Constable Hughes, who takes David’s statement, but is no help—but Stephens notices a white robe in the constable’s house.  Following more details of David’s story, they visit Emrys Hughes at home; they are all stunned when Ace and the Ceffyl pour out of the nearby stone circle and charge the area.  However, they are captured by pursuing soldiers from Dinorben, who begin to cut the horns off the Ceffyl, reducing them to ordinary horses; and Emrys and the soldiers force the humans through the gate to Dinorben.  There they are met by the just-arrived Chulainn, who accuses Ace of working with the witches—but at that moment, Ace’s link to Bat is broken as the unicorn’s horn is severed, incapacitating her.

The Doctor and Bathsheba have encountered more Firbolg, led by a charismatic unicorn named Daffyr.  Daffyr has an unexpected guest: the human veterinarian, Stuart Taylor.  Taylor explains that he had been under some strange influence after finding the unicorn horn; and after contacting Inspector Stephens, he had been compelled to drive his car through the gate at the stone circle, where he was captured at Dinorben.  When the spell broke, he was sent out to find Goibhnie—and he ended up here.  The Doctor plans to use Taylor’s vehicle to complete the quest—but in the meantime, Daffyr has made an enormous accomplishment: he has slain a dragon, and now there will be a feast.  The Doctor determines the dragon is bio-mechanical, living flesh over an artificial frame; he takes its positronic brain.  He combines the brain with Taylor’s car radio to create a transmitter, and signals Goibhnie, whom he has begun to suspect is more alien than supernatural.  They are attacked by demons, and the car is destroyed; but Goibhnie arrives in a saucerlike aircraft, and rescues Taylor, Bathsheba, and the Doctor, and takes them to his island stronghold.  He is revealed to be a long-lived Troifran scientist; he created this world’s populations by genetic engineering, using DNA from humans and other terrestrial creatures combined with a protoplasmic organic material.  Herne, incidentally, was a strange and unexpected mutation.  It was all intended to be a long-term social experiment; but now it has ended, and the artificial sun he created—Dagda’s Wheel—has exhausted its fuel supply and gone dark.  Viewing the inhabitants as just experimental data, he is preparing to depart the world and return home with his results.  However, the Doctor reveals that his failed experiments—the demons—have escaped containment and have begun to ravage the land.  He is unable to appeal to Goibhnie’s morality; but when he frames it as an opportunity to extend the experiment to long-term, independent results, Goibhnie reconsiders, and agrees to refuel Dagda’s Wheel and recover the demons before leaving.  He reactivates the artificial sun, and then takes the Doctor and the others in his aircraft to Dinorben to intercept the demons, which are now assembling en masse—but why are they suddenly doing so?

Ace finds the answer when the sun returns.  The Tuatha leader, Dryfid, quickly seizes the opportunity to make peace with the other races and assemble to battle the demons, allowing the races into Dinorben.  However, the Tuatha de Danaan military commander, General Nuada, is behaving strangely; and Ace discovers he secretly bears the witch mark.  It is he who is coordinating the demons, intending to let them through the gate; and when they have slaughtered all of Dinorben, they will invade Earth, and find new hunting grounds there.  He confronts and captures Ace, but is in turn confronted by David and Jack—and to everyone’s shock, including his own, David is revealed to be a demon himself.  He was only human once, but as a child, he was possessed and transformed at Llanfair Ceiriog, resulting in the witch mark on his neck.  Nuada and David transform into monstrous forms, and go to the gates to let the demons in, dragging Ace and Jack with them.

The Doctor, Taylor, Bathsheba, and Goibhnie arrive, and begin organizing a final plan.  The will relocate the stone gateway—the transmat—to the gates, and Goibhnie will reprogram it to terminate at the containment unit near his island; the demons, pushing through, will be transported there. But first there is Nuada to deal with; and Goibhnie and Taylor go to stop him.  He mortally wounds Goibhnie, but David, struggling to hold onto himself, transforms fully and kills Nuada.  He returns to human form and collapses; the Doctor saves him from the vengeful Tuatha.  Goibhnie is dying; but he gives the Doctor the power pack from his breathing unit to reactivate the gateway, then dies.  The Doctor does so, but is unable to program it for the containment unit; instead, he redirects it into Dagda’s Wheel, where the demons will burn and provide more fuel for the artificial sun.  Soon the battle is over, and Tír na n-Óg has two more millennia to live.

All is nearly over, but not quite.  Dryfid adopts the homeless Bathsheba.  The Tuatha will destroy the gate, preventing any further temptation to return to Earth; Ace provides them with Nitro-9 for use in destroying it after she and the others depart.  However, before they can leave, the dying Herne joins them, and the Doctor determines to save him if he can—after all, only the Doctor can endure the anti-chronons he emits.  The Doctor threatens the demonic protoplasm in David with fire, forcing it to escape, where the Doctor collects it; David is now free of his possession.  They exit through the gate, which is promptly destroyed.  On Earth, they find that some of the unicorns survived; and as their horns were inexpertly removed, they will grow back eventually.  The Doctor contacts UNIT to enlist help in ensuring the unicorns’ safety.  The Doctor collects Old Davy on the way to the TARDIS, enlisting the man to help carry Herne—but he realizes the two have a connection already.  Inside the TARDIS, Old Davy and Herne merge into one; from Herne’s perspective it is death, but from Davy’s it is a new existence.  The joined creature vanishes, leaving a mass of the organic protoplasm—and the silver cat manifestation of the TARDIS appears, and begins using the protoplasm to heal the TARDIS’s link to the Eye of Harmony.  As the TARDIS is restored, the cat shuts down…but unknown to the Doctor, a speck of protoplasm from one of the demons has contaminated the mixture.  There will be consequences.

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It’s always a mixed bag when Doctor Who delves into the supernatural. Sometimes it turns out well, and we end up with stories like The Daemons or The Spectre of Lanyon Moore. Other times, it goes badly, and we get The Vampires of Venice (apologies to anyone who likes that story; I personally don’t). Once in awhile, it’s just average, and we get Cat’s Cradle: Witch Mark. I expected worse, to be honest; I had done some research that indicated the story is terrible. It isn’t a bad story, but it suffers from bad writing. Plot threads are left hanging; notably, the Doctor and Ace are impersonated by demons at one point, but we never find out what happens to them (I know from research that they will appear in a later book, but at this point it’s very awkward). The prose can be clunky, and the dialogue stiff—more so, even, than one would expect from a story set in a pseudo-medieval world. It takes a long time for the disparate threads of the story to begin to weave together. The story has a bit of a split personality; the scenes in the Welsh village of Llanfair Ceiriog, with American tourists David and Jack and Scotland Yard Inspector Stephens, want very much to be a mystery, while the Doctor’s and Ace’s adventure in Tír na n-Óg is clearly a quest story.

With all that said, it’s still a fairly clever story. In true and classic Doctor Who fashion, it takes the various elements of fantasy—unicorns, centaurs, trolls, hobbits, even werewolves and demons—and gives them a scientific explanation, although not until late in the book. Also in true DW fashion, we get an alien with a clearly non-human perspective—Goibhnie, who is the precipitating cause of the story’s events—who eventually has to grow beyond his own limited perspective. We get some good, sympathetic characters, both human and non-human. The Doctor is in his element, neither coldly manipulative nor mopey and depressive (we’ll save that for the next book, as I understand). It’s certainly an enjoyable read, for those reasons and more.

Ace is a bit of a surprise here. She’s more like the immature Ace of her early television appearances, rather than the mature, measured version of her we’ve grown accustomed to. It was a timely observation, as last week I reviewed the audio drama Dust Breeding, which is similarly retrograde with regard to Ace’s character. I like the more mature version; I don’t mind teenage Ace in her proper place in the timeline, but she’s grown beyond that by now. It wouldn’t be so glaring, if we hadn’t just come from Cat’s Cradle: Warhead, where she’s able to smoothly travel internationally, hire foreign mercenaries, facilitate the breaking and entering of a well-secured building…here, she spends most of her time making angry retorts, and that’s unfortunate.

It’s hard to view Cat’s Cradle as a true trilogy. The Timewyrm tetralogy had the machinations of the Timewyrm to tie it together, and though they were sometimes in the background, they were always present. Cat’s Cradle does have some binding elements; there’s the progressive damage to the TARDIS, begun by its collision with the Time Scaphe in the first book; and there’s the silver cat manifestation of it (here finally given a name, Lynx). Sometimes, though, those elements are so far in the background that they may as well not be present. It’s especially egregious here; give the Doctor any other reason for landing in Llanfair Ceiriog, and the rest of the story could have proceeded entirely unchanged. Those few elements are wrapped up at the end (though with a hint that there is still a problem with the TARDIS yet to be resolved), but it feels tacked on. It will be interesting to see what a standalone VNA novel is like, beginning with the next book.

Continuity references here are mostly to other Seventh Doctor stories, though with a few exceptions. The most obvious is the biomechanical dragon that is slain late in the story; the Doctor compares it to the titular dragon from Dragonfire. He also mentions King Arthur to Ace, referring to Battlefield, and mentions his visit to Wales with Mel in Delta and the Bannermen (his local friends Hugh and Janet have met Mel as well, and it is unclear if it is in connection with that story). Ace is still feeling some lingering effect from the Cheetah virus (Survival), and uses it to her advantage, while thinking about her adventures on the Cheetah planet. She mentions going to 1963 (Remembrance of the Daleks), and remembers the Haemovores (The Curse of Fenric). The Doctor also mentions once being nearly killed by a spider (Planet of the Spiders; there’s another such situation in UNIT: Dominion, but that story had not been released yet, and should also come after this in the Doctor’s timeline). The Doctor mentions his respiratory bypass system (Pyramids of Mars). Block Transfer Computations, the fundamental “stuff” of the TARDIS, were first described and explored in Logopolis. The Brigadier and UNIT get a mention near the end. I read that Ace’s early reference to a “recently-used” workshop in the TARDIS was intended to be a reference to The Invasion of Time, with time flowing differently inside the TARDIS, but take that as you like; I haven’t located an original source for that.

One final thought: This story is informative in one area, less for what it says than for what it doesn’t. The Doctor comes to Wales (with some direction from the TARDIS) in search of morphologically-unstable organic material to use in repairing the TARDIS’s link to the Eye of Harmony on Gallifrey. Without this, the TARDIS will die. However, let’s ask the obvious question: Why not just go to Gallifrey for that? Surely the Time Lords can repair a TARDIS, if they can build one. The Doctor has a habit of seeking elsewhere assistance that he could much more easily get at home—we’ve seen it ever since Logopolis, when he went to the Logopolitans for help with the chameleon circuit. (Honestly we’ve seen it all the way back to the First Doctor with the fluid links, but we can forgive him—he was on the run.) At this point, there’s no indication that he’s at odds with the Time Lords; the last time he dealt with them onscreen, it ended well enough, given that he overturned the high council and installed a leader that was sympathetic to him (Trial of a Time Lord). (I’m deliberately ignoring any audios, comics, or Past Doctor Adventures books for a moment, as they wouldn’t have been written yet to influence this story.) Is he just habitually distrustful of them at this point? Is it possessiveness toward his TARDIS, in that he wouldn’t want other Time Lords inside it? Or is he just stubborn? The world may never know; but having read Lungbarrow, in which he returns to Gallifrey in dramatic fashion, I wonder if keeping him away for now was intentional on the part of the writers, to build toward that story. We’ll learn more as we progress through the series, perhaps.

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Next time:  Nightshade, by Mark Gatiss!  See you there.

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Novel Review: Cat’s Cradle: Warhead

We’re back, with another Doctor Who novel review! This week, we’re continuing the Virgin New Adventures series (VNAs) with the second entry in the Cat’s Cradle trilogy:  Cat’s Cradle: Warhead.  Written by former script editor Andrew Cartmel, this entry was published in April 1992. Let’s get started!

Spoilers ahead for anyone who has not read this book!

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I’m going to find it difficult to give this story in the order in which the book presents it and still be reasonably brief, so I may skip around.

In the mid-21st century, Earth’s environmental concerns have grown drastically more severe. Soon, they will reach the point of no return. Already, simply breathing the air in a major city can be deadly, and the countryside is not much safer. Everyone has their part in it, but the mega-corporations are most at fault; and only they have the ability to act on a scale large enough to halt the devastation. But one group, the Butler Institute, has other, more sinister plans.

Outside a Butler-owned construction site in the mountains near New York, a young boy tries to destroy a camera on the fringe of the site so that he can play in the woods again. The Doctor makes a slingshot for him to destroy the camera—a symbolic gesture, but a sign of things to come.

Ace’s childhood friend, Shreela, is dying, her body poisoned by the foul air. She has spent her life as a journalist, specializing in scientific topics. The Doctor comes to her with one last article to publish, and it is a very strange one…but she owes him her life, and she is willing to help him one last time.

In New York City, a policeman named McIlveen is shot and killed by Butler Institute operatives. His body is collected and taken to the Institute’s headquarters at the King Building, leaving his partner, Mancuso, to pick up the pieces. The Doctor is also at the King Building, where he befriends a sick and dying housekeeper named Maria, and gets her to commit one last act of rebellion against the company that both employed and poisoned her: she opens the computers for him to access, allowing him to break into the mainframes and gather information.

An old predator named Bobby Prescott once fought and failed to save a library in a riot. Jaded by his experiences, he now targets and kills the child gang members whom he blames for the riots. But, months ago, something terrifying happened to him in the drugstore across the street from the ruined library. The Doctor forces him to reveal his secrets, which concern something vital in a drum in Turkey…and summons the gangs that have hunted Bobby even as he hunted them.

O’Hara, the founder of the Butler Institute, is spearheading its secret project, and looking for people he can trust to help him. He secretly pits two employees, Stephanie and Mulwray, from his Biostock division—which kidnaps people to harvest their organs for the rich and powerful—against each other; when they prove their loyalty, he promotes them to his team. His plan is to go live with a process he has developed, which transfers living minds into computers—making them functionally immortal, but killing the body in the process. He plans to submit his own son, eight-year-old Patrick, to the process while it is in the testing phase. The construction site is a massive bunker which will house the computerized minds of thousands, rendering the dying environment irrelevant. Stephanie throws herself in wholeheartedly, but Mulwray is disgusted—but he can’t back out now. Seemingly unrelated, O’Hara has also noted and read the article planted by Shreela, which led him to institute a new protocol for acquisitions in the Biostock division.

Ace is in Turkey, doing something she never imagined: hiring mercenaries. With the help of an old friend of the Doctor, she succeeds, though not without embarrassing the group’s leader, Massoud. The night before their operation begins, he tries and fails to kill her, and she is forced to drive him away. With the rest of the group, they attack a small outpost, which is manned by four teenage boys with weapons. They are guarding the drum to which Bobby Prescott referred; Ace has it shipped back to the England. Leaving, she is attacked again by Massoud, and is forced to kill him. She connects with the Doctor at the airport, and they return to his house in Kent, where the TARDIS is sleeping in the basement.

Inside the drum is a teenage boy, Vincent Wheaton, in suspended animation. His story—as revealed in flashback as he awakens—is dramatic. He has the frightening ability to unlock the emotions of anyone he touches; if they are negative, they are converted into a wild power that can manifest in many ways. As a child, he attacked his abusive father with a mirror without touching it; as a teenager, he was accosted by Bobby Prescott and a few others in a drugstore back lot, where he transformed a bicycle into a monstrosity that killed all the adults except Bobby, who escaped. One of the boys who had been guarding the drum, Calvin, was present and witnessed the incident; it was he and his three friends who decided Vincent was a monster, and captured him. They sealed him in the drum, relocated him to the beach in Turkey, and buried him there, then guarded him for several months.

While he recovers, the Doctor and Ace meet another new arrival: a girl of similar age to Vincent, named Justine, who breaks into the house. The Doctor arranged this as well, having planted magazine articles that led her here. She is a spiritist of sorts, believing in witchcraft, other planes, and the like. As well, she was traumatized as a child when her best friend was struck by a car and killed; the incident twisted her thinking to a radical form of eco-awareness, in which she blames vehicles and industrialization for all the world’s problems. But this makes her just the kind of person the Doctor needs… In the house, she finds and touches Vincent, and unwittingly unleashes his power, causing two of the cars in the Doctor’s garage to explode. Together, they constitute a weapon of considerable power—but the Doctor doesn’t anticipate that she will rapidly fall in love with Vincent.

The four of them travel to New York. Justine drugs Vincent, and ensures that the Butler Institute’s Biostock department will find him and collect him—but, once inside, due to O’Hara’s new collection protocol, Vincent’s bio-markers trip an alert, and he is sent to O’Hara’s home at the construction site. The Doctor takes Ace and Justine to a drugstore which is being robbed—possibly at the Doctor’s design. He has arranged for Mancuso and her new partner to respond; and Mancuso is testing a new weapon from R&D, which has been secretly fed to the police by the Institute. She finds that the thieves have a hovercraft for removing their stolen goods; she crashes it, blocking their escape, before she and Breen—her partner—finish off the criminals. She finds that the gun has a life of its own, literally, when it saves her life. While this is happening, Justine takes a capsule that appears to kill her, alarming the Doctor—not because she is dead, but because it’s too soon. She had another role to play, and now Ace must do it, by letting herself be arrested.

The Institute has made a double deal with the corrupt police department. The Biostock department gets the pick of the holding cells; as well, they obtain any bodies from crime scenes. Justine is taken in the latter manner, and Ace in the former; but before Stephanie and Mulwray can remove Ace, Breen intervenes and stops them, and sends Ace to Mancuso. Mancuso is at the R&D department, getting a sympathetic researcher, Peterson, to look at her new gun. The Doctor arrives shortly before Ace, and demonstrates that the gun really is alive in a sense; its control chip contains the mind of Mancuso’s dead partner, McIlveen. Convinced, she agrees to help the Doctor stop the Institute.

Justine was supposed to infiltrate the King Building and let the others in; her pill only simulates death for a time. However, because she took it too early, the team needs a new plan; and Mancuso provides it. She drives the crashed hovercraft from the crime scene through the gates and the front doors. They quickly rescue Justine, then—with the McIlveen chip as a pilot—they steal a helicopter and head to the construction site. O’Hara has just killed his wife, who could not accept what he had done to Patrick. Mancuso goes into the house to get Vincent, but is waylaid and shot three times by Stephanie, O’Hara, and—unwillingly—Mulwray, as O’Hara had anticipated the plot. They get the drop on the Doctor’s group. Mulwray snaps and lashes out at O’Hara, but is killed; but this allows Vincent to make contact with Justine. However, she is overwhelmed to have him back, and all her pent-up rage evaporates, leaving him with no ammunition, as it were. O’Hara tackles the boy—and finds out the hard way that it’s not only Justine who can trigger his power, as years of coldness and hatred and disgust pour out of him and through Vincent in a wave of destruction that obliterates the entire construction site. O’Hara is killed in the blast, as is Stephanie.

The mega-corporations that were previously backing the Butler Institute now find themselves scrambling to salvage something. They are forced to turn to efforts at a global cleanup, which will take years, but can ultimately prove profitable. Mancuso is still alive, and the Doctor hooks her to a life support system—and when the control unit says her injuries are too severe, he wires in McIlveen’s chip, which is more determined to save her life. Justine and Vincent are free to be together, but his power is gone; but as the weapon they constituted has served his purpose, all’s well that ends well.

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This book is grim in so many ways. It’s enjoyable, certainly, but it’s dark in a way that we rarely get to see onscreen even in the modern era. People die all the time in Doctor Who stories, but here, it’s on a personal and invasive level that few stories seem to match. There’s a lot of violence even beyond the deaths; Ace gets beaten up at least three times, possibly more, for example. In addition, humanity doesn’t look so good here, at least not at more privileged levels—the destruction of the environment here can’t be played up enough. It’s a timely story in the real world, as the climate change debate continues to grow; and it’s timely for me in terms of these reviews as well. Yesterday I reviewed the audio drama Loups-Garoux, which is set a few decades after this story in the year 2080; in that story, the Amazon basin has become a vast desert, and temperatures are unpredictable. It’s serendipitous to see these otherwise-unrelated stories dovetail in this way, but it’s a bit disturbing when compared to the real world.

It’s very unclear at this point how this story fits in with the previous story. They constitute the first two parts of the Cat’s Cradle trilogy, and this one seems to follow shortly after Time’s Crucible; but it bears very little connection otherwise. It’s implied here that the TARDIS is still recovering from the damage it took in that book, and indeed, the Doctor doesn’t push the machine too hard; he uses it occasionally, but he also travels by car, taxi, plane, and foot. There are no interior scenes of the TARDIS here. I am interested to see how the final volume of the trilogy ties things together, because I’m not seeing it right now. Interestingly, this book—while being part two of the Cat’s Cradle trilogy—starts a trilogy of its own, the “War Trilogy”, consisting of Warhead, Warlock, and Warchild. Those books are not consecutive in the overall VNA series, however, and we’ll discuss them as we get to them.

The Doctor’s house on Allen Road in Kent is not original to this story—it originated in the comic story Fellow Travellers, and will appear again in the novel Transit. Purchased with his UNIT pay during his third incarnation, it’s not the only house he ever owns; his fourth incarnation also owns Nest Cottage (Hornet’s Nest, Demon Quest, Serpent’s Crest). He owns several vehicles, but Bessie doesn’t seem to be one of them; that’s appropriate, since Battlefield makes it clear that he left it in UNIT’s possession, and it may not even still exist this far in the future. UNIT certainly gets no mention here, and also may not still exist.

One plot point in particular stuck out to me as especially unbelievable, and I have to mention it. There’s no real explanation for the teenage boys who capture Vincent and put him in the barrel and transport him to Turkey. Their stated reason for doing it is that they consider Vincent a monster; so, why not just dispose of him in some way? (Perhaps they wouldn’t kill him, but I can see them ambushing him and beating him, or trying to get him arrested, etc.) Why go to the trouble of putting him in suspended animation? Why Turkey? How did they get there (with a drummed kid in tow)? Did no one notice them missing? What was their end game—were they just going to guard him forever? This plan seems insane for four teenagers, or even four adults.

When I discovered O’Hara’s plan, I was convinced this would become a Cybermen story, and honestly, I’m a little disappointed that it didn’t. O’Hara’s motivations are very much in line with those of John Lumic (Cybus Industries); both men want to transcend death and the limitations of the flesh, and evolve the mind. There’s even an old and disabled man who wants the procedure to save himself; here, it’s one of O’Hara’s investors. Still, it’s not a bad ending; and I suppose I can’t complain about an original plot that doesn’t rely on the standard enemies.

It’s often been said that the Seventh Doctor is a manipulator; but his manipulations in previous stories are child’s play compared to what he does here. He masterminds the entire situation from start to finish, and his mistakes are only missteps in the long run. While he doesn’t really manipulate Ace here, he does put her in harm’s way; she doesn’t seem to care anymore, and it’s clear she’s growing stronger on her own. He does allow a number of people to die, and directly engineers the deaths of many of them; there’s none of the Tenth Doctor’s mercy on his enemies here. It’s a frightening and very nearly cruel version of the Doctor, and makes you wonder where he will go from here.

I think that, often, we get into a rut with Doctor Who stories. Certain patterns show up over and over again. You have evil regimes being overthrown, higher-level beings to thwart, crashed spaceships, natural disasters, and of course the Daleks, Cybermen, etc. There’s nothing wrong with all of that—it IS a science fiction show—but even within those confines, there are many types of stories that can be told, and it’s a delight when a story breaks out of the usual mold. This novel is an example of that, because, at its core, it’s a heist story. It’s true that the end goal is not to steal something, but to destroy something—but everything else about the story matches the heist model. The Doctor puts together a team of specialists to break into a secured facility and get access to something he otherwise couldn’t reach…it’s Ocean’s Eleven meets Doctor Who. In that vein, it’s similar to Time Heist; however, Time Heist relied on the plot device of lost memory to conceal the truth from the audience. This story relies instead on the fact that the parts of its plot occur in far-flung, disconnected locations, with individuals who at first appear to have no connection to each other. I couldn’t come up with any other television story that fits this mold, although A Good Man Goes To War is close, as is The Wedding of River Song. For once, as far as television is concerned, we may have seen something new—but the VNAs, as seems to often be the case, did it first, and maybe better.

For all that can be said about it, I highly enjoyed this book. It’s a strong story on its own, moving neither too fast nor too slow, and it doesn’t lean on any crutches from other stories. As a result it can be read and enjoyed even without the surrounding books of the trilogies, and I highly recommend it.

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Next week: I’m going to take a one-week break from the VNAs, for a reason that I’ll discuss at that time. As a result, I’m not ready to say just yet what we’ll be covering. In the meantime, on the audio front, we’ll go from Kent to Nest Cottage tomorrow with Demon Quest, part three; and we’ll finish up Destiny of the Doctor on Thursday! See you there.

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Novel Review: Cat’s Cradle: Time’s Crucible

We’re back, with another Doctor Who novel review! This week, we’re looking at the fifth entry in the Virgin New Adventures line of novels, Cat’s Cradle: Time’s Crucible, by Marc Platt. Let’s get started!

Spoilers ahead for anyone who has not read this novel!

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Having briefly returned to Ace’s hometown of Perivale, a few years (in local time) after Ace’s abrupt departure to Iceworld, the Seventh Doctor and Ace are disturbed by strange phenomena. Reality becomes temporarily distorted round them, and they receive illusions; a silver cat appears and gets them to follow it back to the TARDIS. Once there, they discover they can’t enter; the door is always on the next panel around, no matter which way they go. With difficulty, they manage to misdirect it and get inside. Once inside, the Doctor leaves Ace in the console room and goes deeper into the ship, seeking the source of the trouble. Something has gotten inside, or is about to, and is corrupting the TARDIS, causing it to begin to fall apart. Ace receives a silver scroll from the console, just before the doors explode inward. As the TARDIS dissolves around her, she sees the crew of an incoming ship crashing into the TARDIS.

In Gallifrey’s ancient past, the world was ruled by seeresses called the Pythia, before Rassilon came and took power and initiated the age of reason. All Gallifreyans are possessed of strong telepathic powers, so that no one is ever alone in his or her own mind, with the exception of the Individuals—rare men and women who can wall off their own thoughts. At the end of that dark era, the early experiments in time travel are taking place. The first time ship, the Time Scaphe, is on an early voyage, carrying a crew that consists of a child Pilot named Shonnzi, and five Chronauts: Reogus, Vael, Chesperl, Amnoni, and the Captain, Pekkary. Unknown to the others, Vael is an Individual whose ability to block his thoughts has mysteriously weakened; secretly, he was planted on the crew by the reigning Pythia. Following a legend in a book of future history, she intends to make him her successor, the first male Pythia, though not even he knows this; and thus she wants him on the crew to ensure that future. Meanwhile, Rassilon plots the Pythia’s downfall. Things are upended, however, when the Time Scaphe fails to return—for in the vortex, it has crashed into the Doctor’s TARDIS, forcing him to break the laws of time in spectacular fashion.

Ace awakens in a strange world, a bizarrely empty city. Over time, she meets the Chronauts, who are also here; but things have changed for them. They are now the Phazels, slaves to the city’s ruler, the Process. Vael serves the Process voluntarily, acting as a slave driver to the Phazels; and Shonnzi has disappeared. Ace learns that the city is divided into three Phases, each representing a different time, but all three existing side-by-side, with each slowly becoming the next. On this planet time is scattered, and one can walk from the future to the past and vice versa. In the beginning, the Process—a monstrous, mollusk-like creature—made itself and the world, and seeks to control the future; but the future was stolen by the Doctor. And now, the Process has killed the Doctor.

Ace meets the Phazels, Vael, and Shonnzi in all three periods, sometimes together; she finds that in the final phase, they all become the Process’s guards, which enforce its will in all three phases. Worse, she as well will be one of those guards. As well, she finds that the Doctor is not dead after all; but his memories are stripped out, and he has grown weak. A future version of the Process returns from the third Phase to challenge its young self, as the homeostatic world it has built begins to change. She learns that the city is, in fact, the TARDIS, shattered and turned inside out. The scroll she carries are the TARDIS’s greyprints—multidimensional blueprints—and the cat, as well as an apparition of the Doctor, are the TARDIS’s imprint, its ghost, of sorts. Together, those entities and the greyprints restore the Doctor’s mind, and he is able to regain some control over the dying TARDIS. At the end—and the beginning—as time is about to cycle again, he challenges the Process, which is now in three forms: old, young, and about-to-be-born. He is able to destroy it, and at the same time, challenge the ancient malice of the last Pythia as she tries to seize control of Vael and claim the TARDIS—and the future—for herself. As the TARDIS reconstructs itself on the Doctor’s will, the last Pythia passes without a successor, but not before she curses Gallifrey. She condemns the planet and its people to have no living offspring from the moment of her death forward. Her curse is effective, as even infants in the womb are immediately stillborn.

As the TARDIS is reconstructed, so is the Time Scaphe, and the remaining Chronauts—the youngest version, including the child version of Shonnzi—are able to return to Gallifrey, albeit more than a year late. Their older versions, deprived of existence by a changed past, vanish. The Doctor and Ace are free to travel again—but there will be consequences as yet. And in ancient Gallifrey, the great works of history still lie ahead for Rassilon, the stellar engineer Omega…and one Other.

If my summary is less detailed than usual, it’s because this is a very non-linear story. It follows Ace’s perspective very strictly, because if it did not, it would be utter chaos. From the point of view of nearly every other character, time becomes cyclical inside the city, and cycle connects with cycle in strange ways, so that laying out a stable timeline for those characters would be impossible. For Ace, who has as normal an experience here as possible, it’s a fairly short time; for the Phazels and the Process, it’s years upon years; and for the Doctor…who knows?

None of that is to say it’s badly done. It’s an excellent story, with an excellent presentation, and keeps a firm grasp on the intricacies of a version of time that is utterly different than what we, the readers, are familiar with. It’s made more complex by the frame story of ancient Gallifrey, which does occur in linear time.

We often refer to the alternate history that involves the somewhat-infamous Looms as the “Cartmel masterplan”, for Andrew Cartmel who initiated it in the classic series; but perhaps even more credit should go to Marc Platt, who spelled it all out for us. I personally do not know if any earlier materials did so, but I suspect that this book is the first place where it is described in detail. Here we get a decent, if brief, explanation of the Looms; the Houses of Gallifrey (and notably, Lungbarrow) with their many Cousins, their Housekeepers, and their Kithriarchs; and the Pythia’s curse on the children of Gallifrey. We expand a bit upon the characters of Rassilon and Omega, and introduce the Other (without the capital letter as yet). We also establish an origin for the Sisterhood of Karn; the dying Pythia tells her fellow priestesses to flee to Karn. (How the all-female Sisterhood, with no Looms available, are to avoid dying out is never stated; The Brain of Morbius makes it clear that they do in fact die, despite possessing the Elixir of Life.) Much of this is explained in far greater detail in the penultimate VNA, Lungbarrow, also by Marc Platt; I do not know what other sources may delve into it as yet.

Given that this is the first of a trilogy, it should not surprise me that we never really get an explanation for the Process. Where did it come from? It’s discussed as though it invaded the TARDIS somehow, but we also see its birth inside the City. I hope that this will be further explored in the remaining two books of the trilogy. It’s a bizarre villain, far from human, but not stupid by any means; even the Doctor admits that it is very intelligent, though it’s a bit narrow-minded, perhaps. I can’t help thinking that it was created strictly for the sake of a pun, however; in view of the Process’s having broken the proper organization of time within the City, we get this line:

“I know Processes take Time,” [the Doctor] called, “And that makes you a thief.”

Some references (beyond those already mentioned): The Doctor thinks of Lady Peinforte (Silver Nemesis). There’s a suggestion that the TARDIS—like the Time Scaphe—is meant to have six crewmembers, which will be confirmed much later in Journey’s End (interestingly, both earlier models (Shada TV version) and later models (The Keeper of Traken, Arc of Infinity) of TARDIS do not require six pilots). The TARDIS’s courtyard (Logopolis) and cricket-equipment room (Castrovalva) are mentioned by Ace. Ace also briefly mentions Timewyrms (the Timewyrn tetralogy). In thinking of Rassilon, the Doctor specifically thinks of the events of The Five Doctors; and in researching the Pythia, he uses a card-reader system that is probably the same as the one used for the Record of Rassilon (State of Decay). The Doctor mentions Adric crashing into Mexico (Earthshock).

Not a bad book; in fact, I’ve enjoyed everything by Platt that I’ve encountered so far (with the exception of Ghost Light; I couldn’t get into that episode very well). As it’s the beginning of a story, I’m curious to see where it goes.

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Next time: We’ll continue the trilogy with Cat’s Cradle: Warhead by Andrew Cartmel! See you there.

 

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