Although a prolific writer in his own right, perhaps best known for the Xeelee sequence, Stephen Baxter is no stranger to collaboration, having worked with Arthur C Clarke to expand his premise The Light of Other Days into a full novel and on the Time Odyssey trilogy that act as companion pieces to the masters’ Space Odyssey quartet, and also his award winning novel The Time Ships, sequel to HG Wells’ The Time Machine. Now, he is the latest “big name” science fiction author to take a trip in the TARDIS.
Baxter would have been approaching his ninth birthday when Patrick Troughton debuted in October 1966, swiftly joined by Frazer Hines’ Jamie McCrimmon, then Wendy Padbury’s Zoe Heriot in April 1968, and it is these travellers he reunites in The Wheel of Ice, a human colony made up of a series of habitats strung together around one of the moons of Saturn that is being mined for the rare element bernalium, a colony that is plagues with equipment failures which Florian Hart, representative of the conglomerate who has funded the colony, regards as sabotage.
The premise is one that could easily have come from an existing story of the era, but Baxter fails to develop it in any satisfying way, with situations and stock characters no deeper than the paper they are printed on and a linear narrative peppered with frequent tedious cliffhangers that are immediately resolved, the unambitious structure of a television serial rather than a novel.
The only deviation from this format are the heavy handed interludes which land in the novel with the grace of asteroid impacts. The introduction of the amulet as a plot device is already gratingly obvious, without dropping the whole history of how it is passed from mother to daughter over two centuries before arriving in the Saturnian system is exposition out of control. Both this and the other interludes would have been more effective if spread throughout the novel without knowing their importance or how they would link to the main narrative.
As if the casting was not sufficient clue, references to The Talons of Weng Chiang, Black Orchid, Ice Warriors and Silurians mark this as a book for long term friends of the Doctor, yet it is writ large, a children’s book that makes no attempt at deeper levels or themes that would appeal to that mature audience, which unexpectedly degenerates into violence and killing, both the slaughter of faceless Blues and colonists, but any emotion is second hand, described rather than felt, a detachment that erodes the excitement of the attacks and the spectacle of the trips to the surface of the moons.
Though the story moves in a different direction, the apparent major threat of the Blue Dolls feels too much like the Flesh from the modern season six two parter The Rebel Flesh/The Almost People – indeed, there is even a hint that the technology used to create them may be the origin of the Flesh – but devoid of personality or purpose, they lack the menace even of the disturbing biting dolls of Barbarella that they resemble. Moments such as looping a rope around the TARDIS console to give it a tow is right out of old Who, but a robot with a Scottish accent and the space scooters are more reminiscent of Fireball XL5.
Of the central trio, Baxter captures Patrick Troughton wonderfully, but all his iterations are such a bold and distinct character, the same hearts beating throughout them, perhaps it is the reader who differentiates them, as beneath the costume changes and mannerisms, they all have the same outlook and goals. Jamie’s enthusiasm is real, and he handles the wonders better than Zoe, perhaps because he expects to be dazzled every time he opens his eyes.
Zoe is too much the wide eyed naive companion, stating the obvious so the Doctor can offer patronising comments. Her relationship with the Doctor doesn’t feel real, but it does feel true to the model of the show at the time but as a consequence ties the novel to that era rather than freeing it for a modern audience. Had this been written in 1968, it would have been the best Doctor Who novel ever, but in 2012 it feels old hat. It is most certainly not a good science fiction book, and is enjoyed not on an emotional level, but purely for its – admittedly fabulous – nostalgia.
Doctor Who – The Wheel of Ice is now available from BBC Books