Ghosts from the past are haunting the Yorkshire village of Crook Marsham, which has fatal consequences for the living. Meanwhile; the Doctor thinks it’s time to retire whilst Ace thinks it’s time to settle down.
If Nightshade teaches us anything it’s that nostalgia and living in the past are very unhealthy, very dangerous things. A slightly ironic message given that Mark Gatiss has spoken of his New Adventures debut as an attempt to return the McCoy era to the style of Doctor Who he remembers growing up with. It’s a criticism often leveled at Gatiss (and, incidentally, a criticism I don’t have much truck with) that he writes quite workmanlike, traditional style Who that doesn’t always fit with the fresher, zippier tone of the modern series. I don’t think this is fair, The Unquiet Dead feels fresh and exciting because its horror harks back to the Hinchcliffe/Holmes era, something the target audience of Rose aren’t (yet) familiar with. The Idiots Lantern, though flawed, is doing emotional, characterful things so-called “traditional” Who would never have attempted. And whilst Robot of Sherwood is a retread of The Time Warrior it is a breath of fresh summery air in the midst of the wintery gloom of Capaldi’s first series. But all of this is in the future, what of the novel?
Pleasingly, Nightshade reads as a near perfect combination of both Pertwee and McCoy eras. We have a scientific facility, a Yorkshire village full of well drawn supporting characters, creepy monsters and horrible deaths. And then there’s the dashing young boy that Ace immediately falls for, the addressing of racial prejudice and a darker, mysterious, calculating Doctor. Except, the Doctor’s got rather tired of being calculating and manipulative and wonders whether it might be time to give it all up and retire. Whilst Gatiss points out in the notes at the end of the ebook version that he never really explains why the Doctor suddenly decides this, I’ve read the past 7 books and I was a bit exhausted and thought of giving up this whole endeavour. God only knows how the Doctor must be feeling! It doesn’t really register as a glaring lapse of character, the prose lets us know the Doctor’s become more withdrawn of late and the idea of the Doctor thinking his best years are behind him fits neatly into a story that’s all about being unable to escape the past.
One character struggling to escape his past is retired actor Edmund Trevithick, living out his final years in a retirement home watching repeats of his popular science fiction serial; the eponymous Nightshade. The character of Professor Nightshade is a clear combination of Bernard Quatermass and Doctor Who. But in reading the novel, I visualised Edmund purely as William Hartnell, slightly brusque, slightly irritable but with a heart and an enormous amount of pride in the television show that brought him fame. Trevithick’s character arc is the most satisfying of the novel; he begins expecting the repeats of his show to win him one last chance to play the hero only to find events in Crook Marsham giving him a much more real opportunity to be Professor Nightshade once more. When Big Finish come to cast their upcoming adaptation of this novel I’m suggesting David Bradley in full Hartnell mode to play the character. It would be utterly glorious.
Like Paul Cornell before him, Gatiss is already honing in on what will make Doctor Who so successful on its return more than 10 years later; an in-depth look into the psychology of the Doctor. This is the Doctor experiencing a full on existential crisis whilst all around him is going to hell, and it makes for a fascinating and engaging story the like of which we’ve not really seen on TV. Too deep and too broad for the television series indeed!
NEXT TIME: Death on Heaven