Doctor Who Book Review: Engines of War

doctor who book review engines of war george mann war doctor john hurt cinder borusa rassilon daleks time war other doctor renegade warlock moldox skaro

The death of millions is as of nothing to us, Doctor, if it helps defeat the Daleks.

I think the phrase is “poisoned chalice”. I’m not sure where it comes from, it’s probably Hamlet or something similar. Sort of ironic too actually, given how Eight regenerated.

I’m digressing though, heavily. I should backtrack a bit.

Engines of War is The Time War Novel. It’s so important that you capitalise The Time War Novel. It’s the event novel – probably the most important Doctor Who novel since… The Infinity Doctors. No, scratch that. I don’t think there’s a single Doctor Who book which could be said to cover a more important part of the show’s mythos.

The Time War has been the driving force of most of the show since 2005. It’s affected all of the New Who Doctors, and the Eighth Doctor as well. It’s a Very Big Thing. But we’ve never actually seen it. We’ve built up a picture across nearly ten years from the odd line, a few references here or there, occasional glimpses. Mentions of things like “the Nightmare Child”, or “The Could Have Been King and his armies of Meanwhiles and Never-weres”. There’s the “Skaro degradations”, “the Cruciform”, and the “Gates of Elysium”.

All of that evocative imagery coming together to conjure a picture of a horrible, eternal, all-consuming war fought on a thousand fronts, reaching every corner of the cosmos, corrupting and degrading and reducing the Universe. A war that “made the higher beings weep”, and “made the Eternals flee the Universe, never to be seen again”.

Russell T Davies described the Time War as “obscene” once, and that’s always sort of stuck with me since I first read it. Obscene. This dark, endless, hellish war. Obscene.

That is very difficult to put across in a book, or on TV, or in audio. Not impossible mind you, just very difficult. But if you add to the fact that everyone is going to have their own version of the Time War in their heads, it’s more or less inevitable that the book is going to disappoint.

So that’s what I was getting at with poisoned chalice. As a book, it’s in a hell of a difficult place. Technically, it was always destined to fail. How awful is that? Very much a poisoned chalice to have been given.

Obviously going in I knew that, and I tried to keep my expectations low…

But… this book is a letdown. There’s no other way to put it really.

It follows a largely generic plot, opening with a Dalek base we’ve seen hundreds of times before, an infiltration we’ve already seen before, a planet we’ve seen before. Nothing new or unique. (Having said that, I think I’m being a bit disingenuous – I really really like the opening part, Moldox. It’s very well written, and it’s actually quite a nice window into how the War has affected people who aren’t actually involved in it. The thing is, it’s just a little bit underwhelming – especially since it’s firmly set at the latter end of the Time War, when things really should be much, much worse.)

Then we move from there to Gallifrey, and it just devolves into the most ridiculous fanfiction ever. There are so many references and callbacks, and you just need it to slow down. That sort of continuity requires both tact and finesse, and neither was on display – it begins to read like a list of Gallifrey’s Greatest Hits. It’s back to the 80s, even, which is hardly lauded as the show’s best decade. Normally I don’t have much trouble with this sort of thing, but it could get very obtrusive here. It’s more subtle in some places, sure – there’s a reference to The End of Time with Rassilon tapping out a certain rhythm – but then on the other hand, you’ve got Zero Rooms, the cast of The Five Doctors, and even the bloody Mind Probe. In some places, it is far, far too much – quite often, less is more. (There was a pretty subtle reference to Sam Jones, the Eighth Doctor’s companion, which I liked, but probably also says a lot about quite how many continuity references there were.)

I don’t want to come across as though I hated this book, because it was certainly an enjoyable book to read. It’s really well written, with an excellent style of prose. The descriptions are fantastic, from the war-ravaged planet of Moldox to the Panopticon on Gallifrey itself. The main characters are excellent as well – John Hurt’s Doctor is a tired, sarcastic old man, grappling with the weight of worlds. George Mann has him pitch perfect to how he was in The Day of the Doctor.

Cinder, the companion, is also pretty damn great. She’s got a pretty good character arc, if, admittedly, a predictable fate, and provides a pretty good outside perspective on events. She’s also one of the first canonically LGBT companions in quite a long time. And, like all the best companions, she brings out the best in her Doctor…

… but that really leads me onto the biggest fault I had with the book. All throughout, John Hurt’s Doctor is called exactly that. He’s referred to as the Doctor by everyone. By the Time Lords, by Cinder, even in the actual prose itself. There’s no delivery on the idea that he’s “the one that broke the promise” – he might as well just be any other incarnation. I know that won’t bother most people, but it really, really irked me. It’s… I mean, you’ve got the toys, you might as well play with them, you know? Use it, have it mean something. For example, there’s a very nice coda at the end, where the Doctor wonders if anyone will ever call him the Doctor again… after three hundred pages of no one calling him anything else!

When the tagline of the book proclaims “WAR CHANGES EVERYONE – EVEN THE DOCTOR” you need to deliver, and show us a Doctor who’s actually different. Reveal to us, through Cinder, a quiet rising malevolence. Have him not only condone, but suggest, the death of thousands, because it would save the lives of billions. Give us a Doctor who’s scarily close to becoming the Valeyard. Give us a man who would make even the Seventh Doctor run away in horror. Up the ante. Change. The. Doctor. Make. It. Count.

Ultimately, it’s a book of wasted potential. That’s a horrible thing to say, and I don’t want to say that, because I did enjoy the book. There’s some fantastic concepts – George Mann’s explanation of the Skaro Degradations was wonderful, and his Possibility Engine was downright horrific. But that’s the sort of tone that should have been prevalent across the whole novel. I wasn’t reading this for a fun adventure with the Daleks, I wanted to see a glimpse into this reality twisting, obscene war.

Whether I would recommend this… I guess it depends on how you responded to this review. If none of my complaints bothered you, then I honestly would recommend it emphatically – it is, for the most part, fantastic. But if you’re the sort of person who’s ever sat and thought about the Time War… give it a miss. This book will just sweep away your version, and won’t have anything satisfactory to replace them with.

So that’s… that’s a mutable five out of ten and eight out of ten. It’s morphing between them, just like the Probability Engine.

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Doctor Who Review: The Day of the Doctor

doctor who the day of the doctor review poster hd matt smith david tennant john hurt jenna coleman billie piper steven moffat nick hurran

Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

I went to see The Day of the Doctor in cinema. It was one hell of an atmosphere, which was both brilliant, and, at times, completely surreal. (One of the strangest sights I’ve seen in a long while was a Matt Smith lookalike, in full purple frock coat costume, standing in line to buy a Big Mac)

There were so many people there – some in full costume, others with David Tennant T-Shirts (I personally preferred my Colin Baker shirt, but hey) and many more with sonic screwdrivers and scarves. It was a really, really fantastic sight to see – hundreds of people, who perhaps wouldn’t normally talk or know each other, all together because of one little TV show. That was one of the best parts of the evening, really – seeing, for example, someone who could have watched An Unearthly Child, way back at the start, here today to watch this 50th Anniversary special.

The opening titles were lovely; to see that old howlaround effect from fifty years ago on the big screen was fantastic, and a little bit heartwarming. There were plenty of other little moments like that as well, some more overt than others. My own personal favourite reference to the past was the Doctor’s promise – “Never cruel or cowardly. Never gives in and never gives up” being the maxim that Terrance Dicks used to describe the Doctor’s character. Other, more subtle ones filled the episode as well – Clara works at Coal Hill School, with Ian Chesterton, the code for the Vortex Manipulator is the date and time of An Unearthly Child’s first broadcast, etc etc.

From there, then, we’re introduced to our current Doctor (how strange it is to think of him otherwise), Matt Smith. Right from the off, he’s brilliant. As expected really; I don’t think Matt Smith has ever given a poor performance. The same goes for Jenna Coleman, who does a great job as the Doctor’s best friend, and later conscience.

The other actors all give stellar performances as well – Jemma Redgrave and Ingrid Oliver do great work as the new UNIT family. It was also really wonderful to see David Tennant back – he was my first Doctor, and it was really really exciting to see him back, as the Doctor, once again.

John Hurt, is, of course, the actor around whom all the questions were asked. Obviously, the questions weren’t going to be about his acting prowess – it’s John Hurt for goodness’ sake!

It’s his role in Doctor Who that people were, understandably, curious about. He was fantastic; he acted as the embodiment of the classic series, asking pertinent questions about just who he becomes (“Why are you so afraid of being grown ups?”) Mocking and sarcastic, his dynamic with Matt and David was what really made this special special.

In fairness, however, it may well have worked better with Paul McGann in that part – given that he was part of the Classic series, he could perhaps have better served as it’s voice. Given that has all been and gone though – and John Hurt really was amazing – there’s little point in wishing for what could have been…

Nick Hurran did a fantastic job with the direction – viewing it in 3D, there was a real depth to the visuals, which I think added another dimension (a third dimension!) to the episode. A few sequences which stand out would be the Eleventh Doctor under the TARDIS at the beginning, and the three Doctors together in the painting towards the end.

Steven Moffat deserves a fair amount of praise for this I think. He said a while back that this was the most difficult episode to write because there was so much riding on it, and so many people to please – for me, at least, the episode was a success. Every aspect of the plot linked in together perfectly – the story with UNIT and the Zygons mirroring the problem faced by John Hurt’s Doctor. (Some of the bits with Elizabeth I, however, were cringeworthy at best, and at other times completely inappropriate.)

My only gripe, I suppose, is losing RTD’s version of the Time War, a concept which I really loved. Still, I’m relatively sure there’s a way to reconcile the two interpretations – that’s what fanfiction is for, no?

Despite that though, the return of Gallifrey – through the work of all thirteen Doctors, no less! – was a moment of triumph which worked really, really well here. The montage of clips with previous Doctors was very nice, and rather fitting as well.

There’s a really lovely moment, which I think is worth mentioning. It’s at the point where Matt Smith tells his fellow Doctors that there is, in fact, another way to end the Time War.

David Tennant turns around and, in a moment of jubilation, high fives the TARDIS.

That’s absolutely fantastic, and it mirrors, I think, the way I reacted to this special –  I really, really loved it.

50/50, as it were.

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