OTTL Book Club #6: Cartmel Masterplan or Cartmel Disaster Panned?

With the TARDIS still recovering from the previous novel’s trauma, the Doctor and Ace find themselves on Earth in the near future. Choking with pollution and torn apart by gang warfare and evil multinationals, it’s time somebody fights back. Thankfully, the Doctor has a plan… Cats_Cradle_Warhead Of all the sub-genre’s of science fiction, Doctor Who rarely tackles dystopian futures. There’s Dalek Invasion of Earth; although that plays more as an alternate present under Nazi occupation, as does Inferno. Maybe Day of the Daleks but that story’s main focus is more on how one decision can have terrible consequences. Perhaps the closest we get is 1985’s Vengeance on Varos although that’s actually set on a colony far from Earth. The dystopian future Earth in Doctor Who therefore is what our heroes are trying to prevent. I guess the truth of it is that most futuristic dystopias; The Road, Mad Max, the Fallout series etcetera feature a lawless world full of violence, rape, horrendous mutations and cannibalism. Not exactly the sort of stuff you’d be comfortable with at Saturday teatime on BBC1. Unless perhaps you’re Eric Saward. The New Adventures range on the other hand, with its remit to tell “stories too broad and too deep for the small screen” is given more freedom to present us with a bleak vision of the near future. Cartmel clearly appreciates and writes this 2000AD style future landscape well; free from the limiting budgets of the late 80’s BBC, giving us an Earth literally choking to death. The shifting in focus from London to New York to Turkey and back again gives events a truly global scale and suitably ups the stakes. In terms of world building, Cartmel’s vision of the future has the roads blocked with cars, violent teenage gangs roaming the streets and a multinational corporation out to save themselves rather than the planet. It’s hard to read Warhead post-RTD and not immediately think of Gridlock or the poisoned, TV obsessed Earth of Bad Wolf. Proof, once more, that Doctor Who‘s ultimate direction has been eerily signposted for many years prior to 2005’s Rose. How apt then that it’s the manipulative and calculating seventh Doctor who’s leaving us the clues. Which brings us to one of the more infuriating aspects of the novel; the Doctor himself. The scenes of the Doctor visiting various characters (shortly before their deaths) to put his plans in motion very quickly move from mysterious to just a bit annoying. One of the great joys of any Doctor Who story is watching this great mind figure out what the problem is and then how to solve it. It’s less engaging watching a character who knows exactly what’s going on and what he needs to do slotting the pieces into place. Sort of like watching a man build flat pack furniture with the universe at stake. Thankfully, we have Ace to be just as infuriated and in the dark as we are. Cartmel, unsurprisingly, writes Ace brilliantly here, giving her lots to do and portraying her as the action heroine that’s been somewhat lacking in the preceding novels. Travelling to Turkey at the Doctor’s behest, she’s soon dodging bullets and getting into punch ups. Her relationship with the Doctor is nicely written too, almost Holmes and Watson with the Doctor asking her questions for which he already knows the answer. It’s not a perfect novel; the unrelenting bleakness can get a bit exhausting and sometimes feels like a deliberate attempt to distance itself from the more “juvenile” source material. The middle section in Turkey and London, whilst exciting, remove you from some of the key players in the plot for too long. So much so that it takes a bit of mental catch up once you’re reunited with the Butler Institute and the New York cops. That said, once the story properly gets going and the pieces of the Doctor’s plan fall into place, Warhead becomes an incredibly thrilling race to the finish line; a bold, global Doctor Who ecological thriller. NEXT TIME: Centaurs and unicorns and fox men, oh my! The Doctor and Ace travel a mythical kingdom to do battle with an evil sorcerer. Oh my, indeed.

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