Since the return of Doctor Who to BBC television in 2005, the Christmas special has become a festive fixture, and apparently its importance is not lost on Amy and Rory who request the Doctor to take them home to Leadworth for seasonal celebrations in this new novel from Dan Abnett, long time contributor to the Warhammer novels and 2000AD.
As usual, the TARDIS has other ideas, and though an inviting snowscape is served up for our warmly clothed adventurers, their location turns out to be neither Leadworth nor Earth, nor even the right era of humanity. Their position is actually a colony established twenty seven generations earlier to prepare the planet for the scattered population of the long lost Earth.
The premise of the novel is in keeping with the style and tone of the show, while finding something new to say – we’ve never been to a terraforming colony before, certainly not one threatened by a rapidly destabilising environment. The strength of the novel is the main characters, with Abnett capturing not only the voices of the trio from the moment they materialise, but also their mannerisms, translating the travellers from screen to prose far more effectively than Michael Moorcock did in his high profile but ultimately disappointing Coming of the Terraphiles.
This promising setup is unfortunately not developed with the depth that it deserves. No explanation is made for how the colony has moved backwards in technology, and the prevalent superstition that has superseded education becomes a background drone with no purpose other than to delay proceedings. Most of the colonists lack personality and back story, reducing them to little more than frequently hysterical voices, misguided bumpkins as tiresome in the novel as their presence would be in real life.
Similarly, when the Ice Warriors are revealed, no effort is made to investigate their culture or intentions. Lord Ixyldir in particular could have been a fascinating presence, caught between obligation and honour, an emissary of the ancient Martian race of whom we know little, yet he never develops sufficiently to face the Doctor as an educated, knowledgeable equal.
Structurally, the book is a mixed bag – the ideas are good, and care has gone even into the chapter titles, evoking a seasonal atmosphere that looms over the frozen countryside even for those who are not partial to Christmas carols, but too often the narrative spends endless pages running down corridors or treading water, often quite literally.
Despite the ostensible adult target of this latest line of Who novels, the writing style is clearly aimed at children, and while the technical aspects and dangers of terraforming are explained in an engaging way to excite young minds who may not be familiar with the concept, the novel descends into graphic and bloody violence in the final chapters, a development not in keeping with that audience.
The text itself is large on wide bordered pages, with almost twenty pages devoted to acknowledgements and advertisements; better spaced, the sparse word count could easily have fitted in a book fifty pages shorter with less expense to the customer and the environment. In a week when the news reports that rather than adapt a low carbon attitude, governments are seriously considering engineering schemes to alter weather patterns, if any book should have an awareness of the uncertainty of large scale environmental engineering and that it should be looked on as a last resort, not a viable alternative, it is this one.
For all these flaws, the book is still fun; the Doctor and Rory are particularly well presented, one giving speeches about how humanity is defined by the dreams and ambitions of those who invest in a future they know they will never see, the other considering how with only one Time Lord left to save the whole universe, it’s small wonder he’s always kept so busy keeping up with the backlog. This may not be the Doctor’s most exciting journey, but even on a dull day, he is always good company, and he is certainly with us here.
Doctor Who – The Silent Stars Go By is available now from BBC Books