OTTL Book Club #4: Doctor Who Dances with Death

The 7th Doctor, a master game player, has been out-manoeuvred, Ace has died of oxygen starvation on the moon, and some of the local residents of Cheldon-Bonniface are hiding out in a sentient church. Mark looks at Paul Cornell’s debut Doctor Who novel; Timewyrm: Revelation. 04revelation On a quick personal note before we start, the cover art for Timewyrm: Revelation has always stuck with me. I remember seeing it in a John Menzies years and years ago when I first became aware of Doctor Who and thinking it was one of the most bizarre, most stunning, most memorable book covers I had ever seen. An image as indelible in my fan memory as Autons gunning down early morning commuters or the Sea Devils emerging from the depths.

It really is a delight to discover over 20 years later (Yes, it did take me that long to get round to reading it) that the novel itself is one of the most bizarre, most stunning, most beautiful pieces of Doctor Who I have ever read. It shouldn’t be a surprise really, Paul Cornell is the man that gave us Father’s Day and Human Nature. What is a surprise is that Revelation reads like a “best bits” (Depending on your point of view) collection of modern Doctor Who; 

  • A murderous astronaut, a child in a space suit (The Impossible Astronaut)
  • The Doctor and some innocent bystanders seeking shelter in a church (Father’s Day)
  • A companion “dying” and coming into contact with the Doctor’s past selves in an attempt to save him. (The Name of the Doctor)
  • A character “dying” and having their consciousness uploaded somewhere else. (Dark Water)
  • A story that at it’s heart is about the psychology of the Doctor, about the choices he makes and what kind of man they make him. (Er…well…take your pick)

I’m not for a moment suggesting that Steven Moffat has ripped off Cornell, but it’s clear the novel exemplifies the emotional, character driven direction Doctor Who follows 14 years later. That being said, this is a novel targeted at the more, shall we say “adult” fan, and is therefore allowed to deal with subject matter that, if explored on TV, would spark a fair few letters to the Radio Times.

The opening scenes especially, with child murder and parental guilt are dark and attention grabbing but never feel gratuitous. This is a proper grown up Doctor Who story rather than some of the previous entries which have had graphic violence, swearing and sexual references tacked on in an attempt to seem adult. If we extend the Torchwood reference from the first Book Club; Timewyrm: Revelation is the New Adventures’ Children of Earth.

The more adult tone isn’t the only thing that Cornell absolutely nails, he also grasps exactly what Doctor Who can be capable of in the form of a novel. This is a book jam packed with wonderful imagery and big ideas as Ace and the Doctor venture further into the afterlife, encountering past Doctors, past companions, even a few past monsters. The past companions in particular are truly nightmarish creations that spark the imagination of the reader.

Previously, I had reservations about Timewyrm: Genesys and Apocalypse and their use of past Doctors to slightly undermine the current one. Not so here, the seventh Doctor is front and centre, and his past selves are as much pawns in his game as Ace is. The appearance of “the librarian”, the imprisoned third Doctor and “the boatman” or the bloodied form of the fifth Doctor never feel like fan service. The story feels like a big, bold epic adventure that requires the Doctors to put their heads together and come up with a solution. These cameos feel like they are EARNED.

If you’ve never read Timewyrm: Revelation I urge you to track down a copy. It’s the first time so far in this read-through I’ve seen what the range is capable of. As much as I enjoyed Timewyrm: Exodus that novel felt like a slightly grittier episode of what Doctor Who used to be. This feels like a bold and inventive episode of what Doctor Who will be.

NEXT TIME: The weird, wonderful incomprehensible world of Marc Platt

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