Beneath the brilliant halo of the new seasons of Doctor Who, even in this, the fiftieth anniversary of the first broadcast of the show, it is easy to look down upon the quarter century of adventures that preceded the revival in 2005 and regard them as inferior, less relevant. Indeed, with three decades having passed since The Five Doctors, the last original broadcast adventure to feature Jon Pertwee, there is a whole generation of fans for whom any event before their birth is a historical event as remote as the Kennedy assassination, the Moon landing or the Blitz.
Fortunately, one fan who does recall the era with fondness and excitement is acclaimed science fiction author Alastair Reynolds, the latest high profile writer to bring his voice to the character, and much more successfully than Michael Moorcock’s wilfully chaotic Coming of the Terraphiles or Stephen Baxter’s authentic but dull Wheel of Ice. Reuniting the classic lineup with which he grew up, Reynolds sends the third Doctor and Jo Grant to investigate strange happenings prior to the loss of a North Sea oil rig. Assisted by the forces of UNIT, Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, Captain Yates and Sergeant Benton, it is not long until the Master, the ubiquitous villain of the period, makes his appearance.
The relationship between the Doctor and the Master is perfect, the bickering and boasting, the one-upmanship as they play to the crowd, the Doctor as guilty as anyone when he has an audience, but Jo knows they are closer to each other than he will ever be to her. Although more directly addressed in the revived show, there has always been a sadness in many of the Doctor’s friendships, but readers will be aware from his reaction when Jo finally left UNIT that despite her fears, his fondness for her was genuine. How odd that we are the ones looking back at history with the perspective of time travellers, possessed of knowledge of events yet to pass.
Miss Grant herself is very well represented, able to stand up for herself and proud of the fact that she has earned her position of UNIT, she operates effectively in her own right rather than just as the Doctor’s assistant. While her relationship with the Doctor is recreated faithfully, it is pleasingly absent of the frequent obligation of companions to ask expositionary questions. Indeed, the rapidity with which deductions are made demonstrates a welcome regard for the intelligence of the reader.
The novel reflects both the strengths of that era of the show, the solidarity of the UNIT forces as they defend the shores of Great Britain from an alien threat, and Reynolds’ own predilections. Yes, he has a woman scream at one point, but with the buildup for her to reach that point of hysteria the reaction is fully justified, and Eddie McCrimmon is otherwise a typical Reynolds lead – driven, capable and unafraid to get her hands dirty when it comes to machinery.
Other echoes are in the Doctor’s comment that “Torture never works. There isn’t a mature civilisation in the galaxy which hasn’t learned that lesson,” echoing a theme explored more graphically in House of Suns and the visible effect of the time scoop reminds of the hypometric weapon deployed in Reynolds’ earlier novel Absolution Gap, but typical of his style, it is not the only exotic weapon on offer and the promise of explosions is never far away, though the encroaching terror which lurks beneath stormy tides harks further back, to John Wyndham’s classic The Kraken Wakes.
The idea of the Master as a prisoner whose warden who allows him too much leeway has been done in the show, though the details are different from The Sea Devils in that it is not foolishness but pressure from above, and the ambitious “man from the Ministry” angle is totally in keeping with the Pertwee era, but a key departure from the televised format is that there is none of the need to create artificial cliffhangers at the end of each chapter, a tiresome trap which Dan Abnett fell into with The Silent Stars Go By.
Like the most recent season of the show, Harvest of Time looks back to the beginning of the Doctor’s story, to a deed he and the Master carried out that has been wiped from record, their differing attitudes driving the rift which changed the tone of their rivalry and sundered their friendship. In a twist which unconsciously mirrors the final broadcast episode The Name of the Doctor, it also explores the timelines of the Master and offers a reason for why he, a product of the same Time Lord training, is so determined to destroy and sow misery when his former colleague is the very definition of hope and possibility in the universe.
Reynolds writes with the confidence of someone who knows his subject, his characters and his own abilities, flitting between direct and immediate threats and concerns that are global, even cosmic, as the novel moves to the very end of time, the heat death of the universe, allowing a nostalgic perspective on the epoch of mass time travel, in essence the golden years of the show itself which are celebrated so thoroughly here.
Harvest of Time is now available in hardback and audiobook