Continuing my series of mini-reviews on the short stories to be found in the charity War Doctor anthology, Seasons of War, edited by Declan May and published by Chinbeard Books.
The Moments In Between takes place during the events of Engines of War, at an unspecified point between chapter seventeen—where Cinder is seen to acquire one of former companion Sam Jones’ Greenpeace t-shirts, which she wears in this story—and chapter nineteen, where the Doctor and Cinder retrieve Borusa, the possibility engine, who is not present on the TARDIS in this story.
The War Doctor’s latest companion, Cinder, finds him in the TARDIS console room. He and his machine seem equally tired, and she can’t blame them; how long have they been fighting this war, anyway? Even her little part has dragged on for years. She knows how it can bleed people dry. She interrupts his concentration and asks if he has bad news (and of course he does; when is it ever good news anymore?). He’s diverted for a moment, however, when she comments offhandedly that it’s been a very long time since she heard good news, or saw something beautiful. That, he decides, is one tragedy too many for today; and so he leads her further into the TARDIS.
With a shrug, Cinder did as he said. “Where are we going?”
“To see something beautiful,” he said.
The TARDIS itself is beautiful enough, in its own way. The Doctor leads her through galleries of paintings, past flowing fountaiins, and even through an ancient wood and a field of flowers. How there can be nature inside the TARDIS, she doesn’t know, but she lets it pass for now. And yet, none of this is his destination. After an hour of walking, he leads her to a bright corridor, paved in irregular flagstones, lit with lanterns strung from cables like an alley in some lost-but-exotic city. On each side of the corridor are a variety of doors. She is surprised to learn that everything she has seen is still not what he meant when he said “something beautiful”; his goal, it seems, is behind these doors. He points her to the nearest one and tells her to look inside.
She pulls the weathered oak door—a church door, she thinks—open.
Inside, she is stunned to find an ancient landscape. Giant ferns wave in the breeze under the light of twin stars. Another planet—altogether too close—can be seen in the sky, bracketed by pink clouds. Strange creatures inhabit the puddles at her feet. This, the Doctor explains, is the Sense Sphere, the home of the Sensorites, at the moment of its birth—the moment that race came into existence. It’s complicated, though he tries to explain; the planet is both here and not. This is no holograph, but the moment itself, snatched from reality in the moment before its destruction. Why? He names any number of reasons: Preservation, freedom, a second chance, a personal rebellion. And there is more.
Door after door, the Doctor walks Cinder through moment upon moment that he has taken from the fabric of the universe. Cinder sees a Menoptra take wing. She sees the Nestene Consciousness awaken for the first time. She sees a Sarkovian Death March. The list goes on, and she knows she could go on forever. Finally she sits down and asks the Doctor the question that springs to mind: “You did all of this?”
The answer is unexpected. No, he tells her, he doesn’t do this. He simply found it here one day. It’s the TARDIS who does it; the TARDIS takes it upon herself, in the moments in between all the fighting and running, to capture these moments before they are lost forever. It’s not his reasons that matter, but hers; it’s her rebellion, because she hates the war, hates even the concept of it. When he mentioned a second chance, it was what she, the TARDIS, was hoping for. These moments may be the seeds that restore the universe one day. And Cinder agrees; it is beautiful.
There’s more, though. The Doctor points her attention to a small door, one that looks suspiciously like a homestead door on Cinder’s own world of Moldox. She could stay here; the TARDIS would allow it, as it seems to like her. She could avoid the fighting. She deserves it, or so the Doctor tells her. And tempting it is, she admits to herself.
But, no. Not while the Daleks remain. Not while people continue to die. She can’t be simply part of the TARDIS’s collection while there is a universe burning, a universe to save. She may not have to go on; but neither does the Doctor, and yet he does it anyway. So will she. After all, the new door, the Moldox door, will keep; she’ll be back soon enough. Won’t she?
I’ve previously reviewed the novel Engines of War, which serves as a parent work to this story; you can read my review here. I’ve often wondered if this story was a deleted scene from that novel, or if it was written separately. It’s a little difficult to fit it into the published version of the novel’s text; one can mostly point out where it should fit, as I did at the beginning of this entry, but the text isn’t written with any gap that would accommodate it. Regardless, it’s a good and sentimental story; and with that novel’s placement almost immediately (as far as we can tell) before The Day of the Doctor, this is very likely the Doctor’s last chance to, well, be the Doctor before he uses the Moment. Spoilers for anyone who has not read the novel: it’s Cinder’s death shortly after this scene that prompts his famous declaration of “No More”, leading him to use the Moment and end the War. That death also turns the ending of this story, and Cinder’s promise to return, into a melancholy bit of foreshadowing, which would be lost on anyone who has not read the novel first.
Although her time with the Doctor is brief (and, unlike other short-term companions, bracketed in such a way that it would be very difficult or even impossible to give her more adventures), Cinder is a companion of whom I’ve grown fond. She is very much a NuWho companion; she is far from the screaming damsel that so many classic series companions were. If you’ll allow me a bit of creative retconning, one might even argue that she is the template for NuWho companions; the powerful impact she has on the Doctor in this one short adventure, which takes place very shortly before his regeneration, sets the tone for the kind of female companions he seeks out for centuries to come. Still, her story as a whole is tragic: born and raised on a Dalek-occupied world, lost her family and friends at a young age, pulled into the resistance, spent her life killing Daleks, and then died after a single trip with the Doctor. It’s a level of grimness that is appropriate for a Time War companion; but it only highlights the need for a story like this one. Put simply, Cinder deserves to catch a break for once.
As much as this is Cinder’s story, it’s also the TARDIS’s. NuWho, of course, established that the TARDIS is a character as much as the Doctor; classic Doctors treated it like it was alive, but that was just an affectation, where the revived series canonized the ship’s sentience. (I am aware that other media took that route much earlier; I’m thinking specifically of the television series here.) Further, we’ve seen in stories like The Name of the Doctor that the TARDIS has strong opinions and the power to express them. I like the fact that the TARDIS is essentially a pacifist; she believes in standing up for what is right, but she hates the fighting. (We had an earlier hint of this in Fall, when the Doctor told the Brigadier that he was forced to deactivate the telepathic circuits in order to circumvent the TARDIS’s disapproval of his destinations.) I very much like the idea that, in a time of war, she rebels by saving peace and beauty. While I don’t see any indication that she must actually use these “seeds”—it appears that the sealing away of the War is sufficient to restore the timelines—it’s a beautiful idea. In the process, we get references to several stories from long ago, including The Sensorites, The Web Planet, and several stories involving the Nestene Consciousness.
We have one more story to cover within the Time War itself; but chronologically, we’ve reached the end of the War, as the next story takes place much earlier in the War Doctor’s timeline. It’s been a long ride, but a good one, and soon the War Doctor can rest. I recommend reading Engines of War for the sake of context, and then wrapping up the War Doctor era with The Day of the Doctor. Thanks for following along!
The Moments In Between was written by George Mann, with art by Paul Hanley; at the artist’s request, I am unable to include the art here, but below I have included a related piece which can be found on his DeviantArt page. Next time: Prologue – The Horde of Travesties, by Declan May. See you there!