We’re back, with another Doctor Who novel review! This week, we finish the Virgin New Adventures’ (VNAs) Timewyrm tetralogy, with Timewyrm: Revelation. Written by Paul Cornell and published in December 1991, this novel is the fourth in the VNA series, and features the Seventh Doctor and Ace. Let’s get started!
Spoilers ahead for anyone who has not read this novel!
I’ll be less detailed in my summary of this book’s plot, for two reasons. First, it has enough twists and turns, coming in rapid order, to fill several pages of summary, and we don’t have that much time. And second, this book is strange as hell (and actually goes to hell, literally, at one point. Or not. See what I mean? Strange already!). You know it’s going to be a strange story when it opens with the death of a companion!
Early in young Dorothy McShane’s life—or Dotty, as she is called—a young boy named Chad Boyle picks up a brick on the playground and hits her in the head with it, killing her instantly. Some time later, now awaiting trial and remanded to his mother’s care, he is spirited away by a man in a police box. Elsewhere (and probably elsewhen, though still in modern times), in the village of Cheldon Bonniface, there is a church…and it’s alive. Or rather, it’s permanently inhabited by an energy being named Saul, who doesn’t really even know his own origin. With the reverend Ernest Trelaw, Saul is a force for good in his community—and suddenly, he is faced with an odd couple. Peter Hutchings is a mathematician of considerable skill; his wife Emily is a scholar of music, and unknown to her, possesses a strong psychic ability. They cannot have children; and so Emily is stunned when, during a service, the Doctor runs in and places a baby in her hands, then runs back out.
Ace is disturbed. The Doctor has been acting strange, leaving the TARDIS at night in random places, setting up future gambits—but something is not right about it. Now, they travel to Cheldon Bonniface, but in the Victorian era, where the Doctor is known. Ace is attacked by a child-sized astronaut, and runs away—and finds herself on the moon. The astronaut is revealed to be her childhood bully, Chad Boyle; he sends her mind away and places her body in the church—but Saul is not present in this time. Meanwhile the Doctor realizes the entire village is a fake, and meets with an old adversary, Lieutenant Hemmings of the Freikorps [last seen in Timewyrm: Exodus, boarding a TARDIS]. Hemmings, controlled by the Timewyrm, fails to capture the Doctor, who escapes in his TARDIS. The Timewyrm inhabits Boyle’s body, and kills Hemmings, sending his mind to the same place as Ace’s.
Ace, she finds, is in Hell. Or so it is portrayed, anyway; she has her doubts. Some things are inconsistent: A library, a peaceful flower garden, and a strange room with thirteen stalls, six of which are filled with indeterminate—but humanoid—forms. Something claiming to be her rational side—but in fact is the Timewyrm—uses her to unleash a massive amount of power, vaporizing the real-world Cheldon Bonniface and all its people, and yanking the church—with Saul, Trelaw, the Hutchings, and the baby still inside—to the surface of the moon. Ace’s body appears inside the church as well, on the altar, still alive but without her mind inside. The Doctor arrives inside the church, as does the Timewyrm, who forces him to confront a specter of death; but he is not moved. The Doctor enlists the help of Trelaw, Saul, and the Hutchings—leaving Emily in particular with a strange amulet—and then allows the Timewyrm to send his mind to the same place as Ace’s, leaving his body in the church. The Timewyrm itself then abandons Boyle’s body and follows the Doctor in.
Ace meets the Librarian, an old man who shows her that it is not Hell after all. Rather, it’s the interior landscape of a mind [and brain as well, it’s a bit unclear] that the Timewyrm has occupied as a base of operations. The Doctor joins her, and rescues her from torment; he learns that she is vacillating between maturity and childhood, and realizes that it is because of the conflict between himself and the Timewyrm. If the Timewyrm wins, then—among other things—the vision of Chad Boyle killing Dorothy will come true, eliminating her entire adult life. If the Doctor wins, time will be restored. But the Doctor is losing.
Ace and the Doctor are confronted by the Doctor’s personal demons—the ghosts of many who have fallen in service to him. Leading the pack are three of the Doctor’s former companions: Katarina, Sara Kingdom, and Adric, all of whom gave their lives in service to the Doctor. The Doctor and Ace escape this vision, and are captured by Hemmings, who is torturing a prisoner. He threatens the Doctor, who gives up Ace to be tortured instead—but this allows him to confer with the prisoner, who is revealed to be the Third Doctor. The Third Doctor admits that he failed to resist Hemmings because he was troubled by his own demons [referring to the Leader from the alternate universe of Inferno, which he realizes was himself in one of the forms offered to him by the Time Lords in The War Games]. They join minds and send a message to the group in the church.
Together, Emily, Peter, and Saul interpret the message, which leads them to recover Hemmings’ severed head from the moon. They are able to force Hemmings’ consciousness back into the head, removing him from the internal landscape and freeing Ace, and letting Hemmings finally die for real. This allows the Doctor and the Third Doctor to escape imprisonment. They meet a cryptic ferryman, who is the Fourth Doctor; he takes them to the area around the mindscape’s central pit. Ace, now caught in illusions of the idyllic life she wanted as a child, eventually frees herself and joins the Doctor; the Third Doctor turns back to monitor her progress.
At the pit, Chad Boyle confronts them, and stabs the Doctor—a mortal wound, but he will be slow in dying. Ace drives Boyle off, and helps the Doctor down to the bridge over the pit. She confronts the Timewyrm, which reveals its plan: this is not just any mindscape, but the Doctor’s, where she hid herself long ago in Mesopotamia [during the failed mindprobe attempt in Timewyrm: Genesys]. As well, she has been able to exercise control briefly on several occasions, and has used the Doctor and the TARDIS to set the pieces of this complex plan in place—hence, the Doctor’s mysterious nighttime excursions. [It’s implied, but not stated, that the possessed Doctor is the one who picked up Chad Boyle in this book, and Hemmings way back in Timewyrm: Exodus.] If she can destroy the Doctor here, she will take over his body and powers, and consume the universe. Meanwhile, the group in the church, still following the Doctor’s message, are stunned when the amulet opens into a portal into the Time Vortex. Working together, they find a path leading to the Doctor and Ace, and Emily goes through to rescue them. She successfully brings out the Doctor, but Ace is trapped. Ace is confronted by the dead companions again, who tell her to go into the pit and free the Doctor’s conscience. She finds it in the form of the Fifth Doctor, tied to a tree; she frees him, restoring the Doctor’s conscience. Enraged, the Timewyrm attacks her, and Chad Boyle as well.
Outside, the Doctor has the power now to crush the Timewyrm; but doing so will kill Ace as well. With his conscience restored, he cannot do that. He pilots the TARDIS into his own inner landscape, and confronts the Timewyrm there—and offers it not death, but peace. In terror, it destroys Chad Boyle to unleash its full power on the Doctor. He locates the humanity inside—Qataka, the woman it once was—and offers it peace. Qataka agrees, and he absorbs her into himself. The Timewyrm’s power, now a facet of the universe itself, becomes dormant. The Doctor and Ace return to the church, and he releases Qataka’s essence into the baby [which, it is later revealed, is an artificially-grown, mindless clone of sorts], which the Hutchings will now raise and name Ishtar. Qataka will have her chance at redemption.
The Doctor and Ace return the church to Earth, where the explosion never happened, now that the Timewyrm is removed. They spend some time wrapping up loose ends—obtaining the baby from a lab and placing it with Emily, stopping the childhood version of Chad Boyle from killing childhood Ace [and realizing that Chad turns out well in the end], and finally, departing. Trelaw, meanwhile, buries Hemmings’ head, and pondering the outcome of it all.
It says something about this book that my simplified summary is still nearly 1500 words long. It’s a complex story, with many twists, and a good deal of surrealism, and I’ve glossed over a lot of the details. It explores one of my favorite science fiction tropes, that of an internal landscape in which someone is trapped; I’ve written a few stories of that type myself, though not nearly so compellingly. In one sense, it fails in that regard; I expect Paul Cornell thought he was being rather vague about whose mind was in question, up until the point where the Third Doctor’s identity was revealed; but I caught that particular twist as soon as the first scene inside the mind took place. (Then again, who else could it be? No other character had been built up enough to merit such a reveal.) In every other sense, it’s brilliantly done. The inner landscape reflects not only the mind, but aspects of the brain in which different functions take place. As well, it’s divided into several large zones, each of which is occupied by a former incarnation of the Doctor, thus justifying the manner in which the Doctor called up his past selves in the preceding novels. Not everyone is here, however; the Second Doctor doesn’t appear (perhaps in light of being so heavily utilized in the last novel), and the Sixth doesn’t appear. (With regard to the Sixth Doctor, we will eventually learn why he doesn’t appear here, but not for a long time—it’s addressed in Head Games, the 43rd VNA novel.) Future incarnations are also addressed, in the hub room which contains their undefined forms; there’s even a near-regeneration when Ace accidentally awakens the potential Eighth Doctor.
The Doctor’s manipulative tendencies are addressed head-on here. His past companions both love him and castigate him here (and never mind that they are from previous regenerations, which weren’t noted for this level of manipulation). Ace herself finally admits that she both loves and hates the Doctor, and he is forced to confront that truth—but in the end, he goes back for her, and not her only, but the Timewyrm as well. Ace has her own moment of truth when she tries to save Chad Boyle, though she is unsuccessful (he will, of course, be saved by setting time right, but that’s another matter). It will be interesting to see how the matter of the Doctor’s conscience plays out in future novels.
We get a glimpse of Gallifrey in vision form here. It’s not clearly stated that the Hermit from his childhood is the same as Kan’po Rimpoche (Planet of the Spiders), but it’s a reasonable guess; and if that is so, then the mountain in question here, Mt. Cadon (Gallifrey’s highest mountain) would be the mountain that stands above the House of Lungbarrow (as seen much later in the penultimate VNA, Lungbarrow). He also makes reference to the Prydonian Academy (the parent organization, the Prydonian Chapter, was referenced in The Deadly Assassin), from which he stole the amulet that allows Emily into his mind.
Many other stories are referenced in passing here; perhaps unusually, the references are less in the form of artifacts or individuals from those stories, and more in the form of dialogue about those stories’ events. The Timewyrm refers to the events of Earthshock, Ghost Light, The Curse of Fenric, and—more distantly–The Daleks’ Master Plan. Ace reflects back on several of her past adventures, including Iceworld and Survival, and mentions having received one of Mel’s memories (Timewyrm: Genesys). The Third Doctor refers to Inferno; the Fourth Doctor’s appearance is a nod to his version of Shada (and by merit of reused footage, The Five Doctors). I’ve already mentioned the three deceased companions (The Daleks’ Master Plan, Katarina and Sara Kingdom; Earthshock, Adric); as well, other spectres seen include UNIT soldiers (various stories) and at least one Sea Devil (The Sea Devils, Warriors of the Deep). It’s perhaps a bit of a spoiler, but as it will be a long time before I get there, I’ll mention that Cheldon Bonniface appears again in Happy Endings, at the wedding of Bernice Summerfield; Lieutenant Hemmings will appear there as well.
Interestingly, the TARDIS wiki states that this novel is based on a short story by Cornell, called Total Eclipse. In that version, it was not the Seventh Doctor, but the Fifth, with Nyssa and Tegan in tow. I’m not sure if the story was ever published; the wiki had no page for it, and the interview from which the explanation comes is no longer available at its original source (perhaps via Internet Archive, if someone feels ambitious?). Still, it would be interesting to see how it played out, given that the Fifth Doctor is a character within the Doctor’s head in the novel version.
While I don’t really have any complaints about this story, I can easily see how some people might. Its surrealism, coupled with the speed with which it jumps viewpoints, could make it very hard to follow (and it isn’t helped by the quality of the ebook version that I read, which tends to remove any markers or extra spaces between scenes). It could easily leave the reader with more questions than answers, especially given that at the time of writing, there was no way to know what lay ahead. Still, it’s a fascinating book, with a novel approach to the inside of the Doctor’s mind; and it gives a suitably original ending to the Timewyrm, an ending that is fit for the Doctor. In that regard, he’s much more in tune with the new series than the classic series; for once, everybody lives. (Except Hemmings. Nobody likes that guy.) It’s a great end to the tetralogy, and more than pays back the two volumes of side stories that came in the middle.
Next time: We’ll begin a new story arc with the first in the Cat’s Cradle trilogy, Marc Platt’s Cat’s Cradle: Time’s Crucible! See you there.