When it was announced that Michael Moorcock, legendary veteran of British science fiction and fantasy literature, was to pen an original novel based on the latest series of Doctor Who, fandom gasped in delighted astonishment. Join Geek Chocolate as we consider whether the meeting of two legends is to be treasured or avoided.
While perhaps not as unlikely as Alan Moore offering to record a commentary track for the blu-ray of The League of Extraordinary Gentleman, this was still an unprecedented development. Some collaborations are inevitable, but this one was not; never before in almost half a century of Doctor Who had an established novelist lowered themselves to something as crass, as common, as a spin off novel, certainly not one of Moorcock’s standing.
Boasting cover quotes from a plethora of the brightest stars of modern British fantastic fiction – Neil Gaiman, Stephen Baxter, Alastair Reynolds and China Miéville – The Coming of the Terraphiles, or, Pirates of the Second Aether is a novel of proven pedigree, yet in a move of deliberate and whimsy worthy of the Doctor himself, Moorcock has written a story in which both the Doctor and Amy are almost peripheral characters, with the majority of the novel a satirical look at the over-privileged as they indulge in the habits of the rich and spoiled; one-upmanship, courting and generally being pompous and insufferable, apparently in homage to the works of P G Wodehouse.
This would perhaps be engaging if either the characters were in some way endearing or we were allowed to genuinely despise them, but Moorcock apparently wishes us to like them, to look on them as charming, to be concerned with their tiresome sporting event, their inheritances, vices and squabbling, and the oh-so-crucial mystery of who stole an exclusive designer hat, when in fact they are intrusive and indulgent, serving only to obstruct the minimal plot.
Into this come the Doctor and Amy Pond, responding to a message from the future, in one of the few exchanges that rings true to the show – “You get mail?” “I depend on information.” A greater failing than the diminished presence of what should be the key characters in a story that already seems to be achieving the goal of going nowhere quite successfully without them is their lack of impact on proceedings once they do arrive, offering little other than commentary, and that so poorly characterised as to be unrecognisable.
The Doctor’s dialogue reads more like David Tennant than Matt Smith, and at one point he is described as being “disgusted” at the dietary habits of another species, an emotion he would usually only display at cruelty, not at the natural behaviour of an alien race. Yet Amy is affected worse, a floundering girl who asks “What is it?” innumerable times, a feisty modern companion reduced to that most generic plot device of old, The Doctor’s Assistant, fit only to be rescued and make him look clever.
The increasingly serialised nature of Doctor Who means that any unofficial spin off must make the decision whether to float in a vague timeframe or anchor itself to a specific moment within the established story, yet The Coming of the Terraphiles chooses to straddle two. The total absence of any reference to Rory indicates that this is set in the period when he had been wiped from existence and history when he fell into the cracks in Cold Blood, yet Amy refers to both the restarting of the universe and the Doctor’s fondness for America, unambiguous statements which mean Rory has not only been rebooted but is now married to Amy.
The restarting of the universe is another problem with the novel. Moorcock has commented that he was specifically requested to make one change to the novel, deleting a scene describing Amy’s bedroom on the TARDIS, in order that it did not conflict with anything that might potentially be shown onscreen at a later date, but as the story moves towards the conclusion, with the whole universe collapsing and only a mysterious artefact able to reboot it, it becomes apparent that perhaps BBC licensing should have been aware of a larger conflict.
While the end of existence would once have been a daring and innovative plotline, with Steven Moffat having just told a variation on this same story in The Big Bang this seems an unnecessary rehash, lacking in peril and focusing as it does on such exasperating characters. Perhaps the intention was to show that anyone can affect the outcome of the world, but again, Russell T Davies already did this when Mickey used the internet connection in his council flat to launch the missile that prevented the Slitheen from starting World War Three.
Indeed, one of the advantages of a novel over an episode of a television series is that it does not have to be tied to a conventional structure, yet the novel is told in a linear fashion. The only breaks from this are the interludes, and it is in the first of these that Moorcock captures the vastness of time, space and possibility, dimensions unfurling like sails as a lonely ship plies the solar wind in a desperate search.
A later visit to this same ship has a feeling of bold new technologies, the smell of the atmosphere and the sound of the vast alien interior. In these moments, the novel soars, proving that it is possible for Moorcock to channel the mystique of Who, even if the thought of sailing ships in space hark back to the Peter Davison story Enlightenment.
Much of the prose is written in the style of Douglas Adams, but without the depth or insight that made his work so effervescent. The book is full of references, not only to other works by Moorcock himself such as Jerry Cornelius and the Second Ether, but also to Edgar Rice Burrough’s Barsoom, Frederik Pohl’s Gateway in the fate of one of the characters, a nod to Arthur C Clarke’s third law, as well as a surprising namechecks to Sexton Blake and Desperate Dan.
In summation, this is the novel equivalent of The Happiness Patrol; enjoyable if that is what you want, but a disappointment for anyone seeking more than frivolity and slapstick. The humour in Doctor Who flows from the characters, the light they shine on an often very dark background, and a pantomime setting leaves the narrative as unbalanced as the disruption to the space time continuum the Doctor is investigating. A similar experiment was performed by the late John M Ford in his Star Trek novel How Much for Just the Planet? with comparable results, delighting a few but leaving the majority unsatisfied.
Since the first publication of this novel, it has been announced that other “big name” science fiction authors are to be writing Doctor Who novels, with Stephen Baxter revisiting the Patrick Troughton era, and Alastair Reynolds’ Harvest of Time featuring Jon Pertwee’s Doctor and Roger Delgado’s Master due in 2013. It is to be sincerely hoped that when the time arrives, their offerings will be more amenable to all those who have waited so long for the right kind of Doctor.
Doctor Who – The Coming of the Terraphiles is available now in paperback from BBC Books