We’re back, with another Doctor Who novel review! This week, we’re reading Love and War by Paul Cornell, published in October 1992 as the ninth entry in the Virgin New Adventures (VNA) series. In this story, we say goodbye to longtime companion Ace McShane, and welcome new and noteworthy companion Bernice Summerfield, who will eventually headline a series of New Adventures novels of her own. Let’s get started!
Spoilers ahead for anyone who has not read this novel!
Ace attends the funeral of her old friend Julian in Perivale. Afterward, the Doctor takes her to the planet Heaven in the year 2570. The bucolic planet lies on the border between the human and Draconian empires, and is neutral territory, serving as a cemetery world for both races in their long and sporadic wars against each other and against the Daleks. While the Doctor visits the governmental library in Joycetown in search of a lost manuscript, The Papers of Felsecar, Ace gets involved with a group of Travellers, a nomadic bunch that has lived on Heaven for some years now. She quickly falls for Jan, one of the travellers, and he shares her interest, although he is in an open relationship with another Traveller, Roisa—who is in turn in another open relationship with yet another Traveller, Máire. Ace meets other colorful characters: Christopher, the sexless priest of the Travellers, who has peculiar powers thanks to a government experiment; and a guest of the Travellers: archaeologist Bernice “Benny” Summerfield, who is conducting a dig at some ancient ruins left behind by the now-extinct Heavenites. Meanwhile, Roisa steps on a filament of a strange fungus.
In Joycetown, Phaedrus—priest of the death-obsessed Vacuum Church—conducts a ritual sacrifice of an old friend. The friend’s dying corpse is taken over by, and converted into, a fungus—and the fungus is intelligent. It has orders for Phaedrus… later, he encounters Roisa, and warns her of terrible things to come.
The Doctor’s efforts to find the manuscript are unsuccessful, and he is balked by a nervous librarian. He meets with Miller, the head of the local military detachment, and takes him into his confidence, warning him of the real reason for his visit; Miller keeps it to himself, but is convinced to help the Doctor. Miller tells him about a mysterious sphere in space, which was spotted briefly before vanishing. The Doctor meets Benny, and she shows him a buried Heavenite observatory with a strange telescope and a decayed body inside—the first Heavenite remains found. The Doctor is disturbed by what he sees there. He accompanies Benny to Joycetown, but they are attacked en route; Benny shoots off the attacker’s arm, but the assailant is not deterred, and escapes. The arm is infected with white fungal filaments.
Ace joins the Travellers in “Puterspace”, a virtual reality environment that links to the Empire’s electronic networks, and which the Travellers use in lieu of drugs to join their minds for rituals and conferences. With Jan, she encounters a being calling himself the Trickster; and she learns more of Jan and Christopher’s history. The two men are old friends; both volunteered for military experimentation during their service. The experiments took away Christopher’s sexuality, but gave him strong psychic powers; Jan was mostly unaffected, but gained the ability to generate fire on command. As the Travellers gather, Roisa begs the Travellers to leave the planet and leave her behind. They are attacked in Puterspace by a strange sphere, but Christopher sacrifices himself to let the others escape. In the real world, the others bury Christopher’s now-empty body, and grieve for him. Ace spends the night with Jan; later, she dreams of the Doctor bargaining with Death for her life, with Death refusing the deal. In the morning, the Doctor meets her, and is disturbed to find that she slept with Jan; she assumes he is jealous of her desire for a separate life. During the visit, he shows her a tesseract, a Gallifreyan hypercube, and plays a trick where it disappears between dimensions. He enlists her help in locating the book; she meets the librarian, who seems afraid, but drops a hint as to where to look in the library computers. Meanwhile, a guard named Kale meets with Miller and reports a (fabricated) attack by Sontarans, and requests to go to the orbital station to scan the planet for incursions. Miller allows it, but notices that Kale’s arm is in a sling.
The Doctor talks with Jan about Ace, and then enters Puterspace. He is attacked by Vacuum Church assassins; Christopher appears and rescues him. Christopher reveals that his powers allowed him to copy his mind into Puterspace as software before he died; he is working out a way to control his own dead body as well, via the Puterspace jack in its brain. However, before the Doctor can leave, Phaedrus enters Puterspace and catches him in a software trap, forcing him to relive painful memories of his third incarnation’s death. Ace arrives to rescue him, but is caught in the trap herself, and it shifts to her memories of Perivale. There she learns from the Doctor that the real enemy is a fungal race called the Hoothi, which absorbs its victims and gains their memories and minds. Ace sees her dead friend Julian there, and the Doctor realizes the Hoothi have replicated her house from his memories, not from Ace’s, indicating that after his death, the Hoothi absorbed him. The Doctor briefly liberates Julian’s mind, and Julian in turn restores Christopher’s program; Julian is reintegrated into the group mind by Phaedrus, but Ace liberates them by reversing the trap onto Phaedrus and making him relive his worst memory—in which he euthanized his own mother. With the Doctor, she escapes Puterspace. While they recover, Roisa gives the Doctor a drink from a Heavenite goblet that was once stolen from the Vacuum Church.
The Doctor and Ace lead the Travellers in a raid on the library. There they are intercepted by Vacuum acolytes, who have been absorbed by the Hoothi. Ace kills them with Nitro-9, setting the library ablaze in the process, but not before they infect the librarian—but just before he converts to fungus, he unlocks the computer, allowing them to find out where the manuscript is hidden. They find that it was last released to Bernice Summerfield. On the way out, they meet Miller, and he learns that the Sontaran invasion was a lie; and Kale has been infected by the Hoothi spores. Kale, it seems, is the assailant who attacked the Doctor and Benny; his arm in a sling is fake, concealing a cache of the spores. He has now infected the entire orbital station crew, and removed the station from action, leaving the planet defenseless until help arrives—in a week.
The Doctor again tries to get Ace to give up her romance with Jan, but to no avail. He retrieves the manuscript from Benny, and finds his own handwriting in it, though presumably from a future incarnation. It acts as a Rosetta Stone of sorts, allowing him to translate Heavenite writing left behind in the observatory. Ace confers with Benny, and they discuss their respective and checkered pasts; Benny admits that she faked her credentials years ago, and is not really a professor. She travels in search of the truth about her missing father, who may be among the dead buried on Heaven. Ace spends the night with Jan, who tells her his secret name, Aradrath, meaning “one big fire”. During the night, mysterious figures release spores into the Traveller camp, infecting some of the Travellers. Christopher also appears, having regained control of his body after a fashion, and collects most of the spores, which will not harm him; he also warns Ace that remaining with Jan will require a sacrifice.
The observatory writing leads the Doctor and Benny to the graveyards, where they find that every body is infected with the spores, and indeed, have not decayed—all part of the Hoothi plan. He gets Benny’s team to rush and dig up the observatory, as it is intstrumental to his plan. The Hoothi, via Kale, try to crash the orbital station onto the dig, but the Doctor threatens Phaedrus to divert it; the Hoothi need Phaedrus alive for now, and they destroy the station before it can crash. The Doctor returns to the camp, and levels with everyone about the Hoothi: They are an ancient, fungal race, which absorbs and utilizes the living and the dead alike in efforts to conquer the galaxy. They were believed to have fled after failing once to conquer Gallifrey; but now they have returned. They exist in sub-hive minds as part of the greater group mind, and each sub-group travels in a massive organic sphere, composed of the remains of absorbed creatures. Centuries ago, they farmed the Heavenites for raw material, until they eventually claimed the entire world; the observatory was left to guard against their return. Now they are returning, and their long game will pay off; they arranged to have Heaven made into a cemetery world, filling it with a vast army of the dead, which they are coming to claim for use in their conquest. They can see and hear through their living victims, and can control the victims’ actions, or take over at any time. The spores cannot be cured.
The now-liberated observatory contains a special telescope that can penetrate the Hoothi sphere’s ability to conceal itself. Roisa, knowing she is infected, goes to blow up the Vacuum Church in a suicide bombing, but can’t pull the trigger; Phaedrus forces her to meet the Hoothi that is located in the basement. Jan realizes what has happened, and takes matters into his own hands; he takes some of the others and steals a shuttle, intending to set it as a passive projectile in orbit to destroy the Hoothi sphere. Ace and Máire follow him and sneak aboard. When he discovers Ace, he asks her to marry him if they survive. She agrees, and everyone but Jan waits in the shuttle’s escape pods. Jan will activate the final course of the shuttle, and then enter a pod himself, and launch the pods. However, when the ship appears, everyone except Jan, Máire, and Ace explodes into fungus; and even Jan is clearly infected, as he can’t fire the engines. He ejects Ace, Máire, and one of the others. Ace loses her mind briefly from grief; but the Doctor’s hypercube appears in her hand, containing impressions of Jan, which pull her back to sanity. Máire’s pod crashes into the Vacuum Church, doing much damage, but not destroying the church, Phaedrus, or the Hoothi.
When the Doctor learns that Ace followed Jan, he is appalled, and immediately takes the TARDIS—with Benny—to the Hoothi sphere. The Hoothi—or rather, three of the four in their subgroup—meet with him, and reveal that he himself is infected, having received a spore from the drink given to him by Roisa. They will refrain from taking him over, and allow him to leave with Ace, if he destroys the planet’s military communication equipment so as to prevent the empire’s Spacefleet from arriving. However, they infect Benny; but the Doctor secretly prevents the infection, feeding the Hoothi images from his mind to make them think they were successful. As the Doctor and Benny leave, they see Jan’s body among the other captive forms. The Hoothi sphere enters the atmosphere, and sends down subspheres and stairways to receive their infected dead, which burst to life from the ground all over the planet. Along the way, the dead attack and kill many of the living, breaking down settlements and buildings. The Doctor sends Benny to recover Ace, who has crashed in the forest. Christopher joins them as well. Phaedrus, considering his work complete, enters Puterspace still haunted by the death of his mother; Ace arrives and follows him in, seeking revenge for Jan’s death. The Doctor, meanwhile, deactivates the comm equipment. He goes to the Vacuum Church and enters Puterspace to rescue Ace; however, with Christopher’s help, he exploits the remnants of Jan’s consciousness inside the group mind, horrifying Ace. Rather than try to save Jan, he persuades Jan to ignite his pyrokinetic power—and the sphere, filled with flammable gases, explodes, destroying the Hoothi inside and breaking their control over their army. It was all a part of the Doctor’s plan, including leading Jan to confront the Hoothi, as he knew that Jan was infected; however, Ace cannot forgive the Doctor for manipulating sacrificing her lover to win this battle.
As the colony picks up the pieces, Ace returns to the church—but finds Phaedrus still alive in the basement. Phaedrus kills himself, and is absorbed by the fourth Hoothi, which has been in the basement all along; it could still salvage the situation with enough blood—and Ace will provide that blood. The captive Roisa pushes her toward the Hoothi. However, Máire is still alive in the wreckage, and she shoots and kills Roisa. Ace calls on the last of Julian’s mind inside the Hoothi, and makes him rebel momentarily; and he causes the Hoothi to explode and die.
The Doctor searches for Ace, and bears witness to Christopher’s final death, as he can no longer maintain his body. He finds Ace and tries to apologize to her; but her love for him has turned to hatred after his actions, and she refuses to go with him. She stays behind with Máire and the remaining Travellers, keeping only the hypercube—she even leaves her jacket with the Doctor, indicating her break from her life with him. He returns with it to the TARDIS…where Benny agrees to join him. After all, as she points out, he needs someone to remind him who he is, and to give him a reason to fight.
This story represents a major turning point for the New Adventures: the departure of the final classic series companion. We’ve had hints for some time that Ace would leave the Doctor (and it’s been common knowledge among fans for a few decades, of course), including a false start at the end of Nightshade; here, she goes through with it. It happens predictably but spectacularly; we’ve known for some time that Ace’s one problem with the Doctor is the way that he manipulates people for his own purposes as Time’s Champion. Here, it finally costs her the life of someone dear to her, and it overwhelms her, leading her to erupt at the Doctor at the end of the book. She’s lost people before, of course, but never with the significance seen here, and it leaves a mark from which she will be a long time recovering. I like Ace—I always have—and I hate to see her go; but given that it had to happen eventually, I can’t think of a more appropriate way for it to happen. Note that I don’t call it a good way; it’s not good, but it’s appropriate, in that only something so terrible would be enough to truly break the bond between Ace and the Doctor.
Bernice Summerfield’s arrival is just as portentous in its own way. She won’t be with him for the duration of the New Adventures—there are other companions to come—but Benny, as she calls herself, will accomplish something that no one else could manage: She will become the star of the show. Specifically, when Virgin Books lost the license to produce stories featuring the Doctor, they chose to continue the New Adventures in modified form, with Bernice as the main character. This will eventually lead into her extensive role in Big Finish’s books and audio dramas, with Bernice’s stories actually preceding the Doctor’s at Big Finish. At the moment I don’t intend to include Bernice’s books in this series of New Adventures reviews; I intend to stop with Lance Parkin’s The Dying Days, the final VNA to feature the Doctor, before switching to another series of books. However, I may at some point continue with Bernice’s novels as well.
This is the first book to make the concept of Time’s Champion explicit. Here, Death is personified as an Eternal (a concept first introduced back in Enlightenment), and later books will establish that Time is also an Eternal; Death makes a reference here to the Doctor being Time’s Champion, its chosen representative. It’s in this role that he carries out his campaign against the various evils of the universe, but it’s also this role that sometimes requires him to sacrifice the few for the sake of the many. Ace has been with him in this until now—she is referred to as the steward of Time’s Champion—but she can’t bear it anymore. The Doctor, for his part, is sorry to let her go, and even tries to make it up to her; but in the end, he fails at this last task. His chesslike manipulative skills are in full force here; we even get an indication that an unspecified future incarnation still plays the game, as some future version leaves a note for the seventh Doctor.
The Travellers are not your ordinary supporting characters. They’re inspired by—or are direct descendants of—what in America we would call Gypsies; I’m not sure what the preferred term would be in Europe, but I don’t mean any disrespect if I get it wrong here. There’s a larger group that appears in the background, but there are four major characters. Jan, Ace’s love interest, is exactly the type of firebrand that would attract her; he’s flamboyant, loyal, and driven, unlike her last love interest, Nightshade’s Robin Yeadon. (I never understood how the meek, bookish Robin managed to catch Ace’s eye; and apparently the Doctor felt the same, as he essentially forced Ace away from Robin, although I’ve seen hints that this will be significant for other reasons in the future.) Christopher, the group’s priest, is a mystical figure of sorts, which isn’t particularly unusual; but he continually turns up in unexpected places, with surprising abilities. In any other story, that would serve as a sort of deus ex machina; but here, it plays very well. Máire is the group’s priestess, and has the smallest of the four major roles; but she’s interesting for being on the end of Jan’s string of relationships here, as she is Roisa’s other lover; she’s a bit jealous, of course, but in the end her relationship drama plays into her role in the story’s resolution. She and Ace are on opposite ends of this string of relationships, and in the end, they find some solidarity in that fact, with both Jan and Roisa dead (which I think is not a particularly large spoiler, given that most people die in the average Doctor Who story). Roisa is in the middle of it all, and conceals a deadly secret for most of the story; she’s perhaps the most sad and tragic figure among the Travellers, and what’s worse is that she knows it—but still tries to save everyone around her.
Other supporting characters don’t figure as prominently. Miller, the imperial security lead, is decent, but has a fairly minimal role. Benny’s fellow archaeologists are essentially stock characters (though one of them is conspicuously named for Doctor Who author Paul Magrs; I wonder what the story is behind that).The librarian, Trench, is the same kind of nervous, cloistered, elderly academic that we’ve seen dozens of times; for a good comparison, see The Genocide Machine. Phaedrus is interesting, but horrifying, given his obsession with death; even when we get an explanation for it, it’s still depressing.
References: The Draconians and their war with Earth—and the subsequent Dalek wars—was first mentioned as far back as Frontier in Space. The Draconians in this book give us the first instance of the Doctor being called “The Oncoming Storm”, which features in the revived television series beginning with The Parting of the Ways. The fungal Hoothi aliens—the villains of this story—were first referenced in The Brain of Morbius, though without the extensive description given here. Abslom Daak is mentioned here by Máire, who is also a (former) Dalek Killer like Daak; he first appeared in the comic Abslom Daak…Dalek Killer. IMC, the Interplanetary Mining Corporation, has a presence on Heaven, and appears first in Colony in Space. The Sixth Doctor and Evelyn Smythe met Benny prior to this in The 100 Days of the Doctor (which had not been written yet, thus explaining behind the scenes why it’s not referenced here), although for Benny this is the first meeting; hence the Doctor doesn’t mention it to her. The Doctor refers again to Harry Houdini (The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Smoke and Mirrors, other offscreen stories). The Doctor again reminisces about leaving Susan on Earth (The Dalek Invasion of Earth). Death comments that the Seventh Doctor, while as yet not regenerated, caused the death of the Sixth Doctor so that he could become Time’s Champion (Time and the Rani); however, as this occurs in Ace’s dream, it’s debatable whether it’s correct. There are a number of things in this story, as well, which will be picked up again in future stories, but I’ll leave those for when we get there, for the sake of spoilers.
This book is very nearly as good as Nightshade, in my opinion. If I have any complaint, it is this: Ace is still hung up on her past with her mother. While it’s completely believable that she would have this issue, several stories have had her resolving it. She’s grown so much in so many ways, but in this one area, she seems to be stuck in limbo indefinitely. It’s become repetitive over several stories, and stretches belief. The same could be said for the Doctor’s memories of Susan; several books in the nine we’ve read so far have had him obsessing over her to the point of delusion, and though he resolves it in every instance, each successive book seems to reset him to the starting point. I suspect that this is a product of the manner in which the books were commissioned and written by varying authors, who all worked from the same basic set of points; I imagine that each author had to submit his or her manuscript before the preceding book became available, and therefore had to wing it as far as such details were concerned. Still, it may be that we’ll get a shift in focus along with the change in companions.
Next time: We join the Doctor and Benny on twenty-second century Earth in Transit! See you there.
Although most of the Virgin New Adventures are now out of print, and therefore are difficult to locate with reliability, this novel (among several others) was adapted to audio drama format by Big Finish Productions, and may be purchased at the link below.
Love and War