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July 27, 2008

Casualties of War

War It’s 1918 and Jason Bourne, sorry, the Doctor turns up in Hawksworth, a generic North Yorkshire village, saying he’s been called in by ‘the ministry’ to investigating strange occurrences of livestock being exploderised and soon after dead soldiers walking.  Suspicions turn to the hall on the hill, a Hospital for was wounded and its megalomaniac administrator Dr. Banham and its up to the ministry man and his new friends Constable Briggs and Mary Minnett to uncover the threat to the village and stop it spreading to envelop the whole world.

So far, so historical Who does The X-Files.  But what that purposefully broad synopsis seeks to demonstrate is the striking simplicity at the heart of first time novelist Steve Emmerson’s book – it’s the Doctor versus zombies!  Granted Emmerson (interviewed here) is keen to show the tragic similarities between the idea of the walking dead and the men in the trenches of World War One waiting to go over the top and each of these cruel inhuman forms has a history and past life cut cruelly short by world events, but in the end, it’s our timelord friend shouting in a room as these monsters gather for the kill, and unlike The Empty Child, there’s no child like order to stop their advance.

As you’d expect given the setting, it is a good companion piece for tv’s Human Nature.  That was about how young boys were essentially being groomed for the impending and inevitable war; here we see the effects that four years of mud, bullets and bombs would have on them.  The patients in the hospital are broken figures yet also so institutionalized they’re trying to get better so that they can return to the fight (though admittedly to an extent they have little choice).  When one of them is murdered, it's all the more horrific because it happens in a place were they’re supposed to find comfort and yet death still stalks them even there.  As Emmerson says in his notes:  "I wanted to get inside the men’s heads. Let everybody see what they’d been through. Have them remembering their loved ones, their mates, their real lives."

here we see the effects that four years of mud, bullets and bombs would have on them

Emmerson’s beautifully written book may be slow in plot development – its some hundred pages before anything of great note happens, but you can forgive him since his handling of both atmosphere and character are so well achieved.  The main representative of the local community is the broadly spoken Bill Cromby and the vague pun in his name suggests the author had Ambridge in mind when he was developing the story.  You can almost smell the village, a tiny outpost of civilisation in which the Doctor seems very metropolitan indeed, but at no point does he seem to patronise the locals, he clearly has some affection for the rural life.

Chiefly that’s seen through the local bobby Briggs, a silver haired copper close to retirement who’s served the community for decades and for whom this is the most exciting thing which has happened in his long career.  Without the Doctor he’d be sunk, and the timelord clearly enjoys his company – there’s some wonderful bluff work at times in their negotiation of the slippery Banham.  If this not been the war to end all wars but the one after that, he’d be front and centre in the Home Guard, presumably telling Captain Mainwaring were to stick his rules and regulations.

Kate The best character though is undoubtedly companion for the duration, Mary.  Educated and aware, the Doctor’s attracted to her straight away though you detect that he’s not quite sure why – we know it's companion syndrome, the need to have someone helping him and watching the excitement, but he’s perhaps confusing that with a romantic connection which he’s not quite so comfortable with and that she isn’t either, though he awakens the blossoms within her (especially after a rather steamy moment outside her bedroom door).  Once the Doctor has moved into her spare room, they begin sparring over the dinner table, a chess game in which she’s attempting to discover exactly who this mystery ministry man is and he’s blocking her blows with half-truths and subterfuge.  In my head Mary’s played by Kate Winslet, and I can just imagine that scowl the actress has patented as the answers to her questions aren’t forthcoming -- and her performance during the pissed on port scene.

In my head Mary’s played by Kate Winslet, and I can just imagine that scowl the actress has patented as the answers to her questions aren’t forthcoming -- and her performance during the pissed on port scene.

Like his subject, Emmerson isn’t in a hurry to provide a recap of the intervening years.  The Doctor’s moved on somewhat; though he’s travelled a bit more and there are more flashes of the man we knew creeping through: the namedropping, the bursts of emotion, the machine gun repetition of the words.  When asked why he’s not aiding the effort, he says that its not his war which suggests that since the years have passed and he’s retained his youthfulness he’s realised he’s unlike other men, which has generated a new sense of purpose, beyond the waiting game for the next millenium and a meeting with someone called Fitz decades ahead.  It’s his naturally curiosity which draws him to Hawkswick and which leads him to almost accept the mantle of a steampunk Sherlock Holmes.

About the only weaknesses in the book are the villain and the denouement.  The problem with Dr. Banham is that he’s rather a stock cackler without the sympathetic motivations that made Nepath, the Doctor’s adversary in The Burning so understandable.  There are some neat parallels between the scenes in which he’s not giving anything away to the Doctor and the latter’s own secrecy, but you’ve never under any illusion that he’s the baddun and whilst not every Doctor Who story can or should be pinioned on a twist, his brand of bland evil is disappointing.  As for the ending, for readers who’ve not yet been through this otherwise rather wonderful novel, I’ll talk about that below.  Anyone not wanting to read the end of the review can always look instead at Emmerson’s own story of receiving the commission to write from BBC Books.

Cw If there’s a well established golden rule in the franchise, it’s that the Doctor travels in a rational universe and that ghosts, spooks, vampires, werewolves and witches all have a scientific explanation even if its beyond current human comprehension and more often than not the blamables are alien.  In Emmerson’s book, we’re told that dark energies from the past have been tapped into by Banham and his methods and that’s what’s resurrected the dead. 

In the end, the demons are destroyed by the Doctor using incantations from a spell book and though you could say that it's not a million miles away from The Shakespeare Code, the author seems to deliberately want to evoke methods more suited to Willow in the Whedonverse.  It reminded me of the Sea of Souls episode in which Paul McGann seemed to play an immortal with a sword and vanquishes a demon at the end while Bill Patterson gaped on.

Also, there’s a rather uncomfortable moment when the Doctor brandishes a gun, though I’m willing to overlook that given what the book is thematically trying to do and also that he might not yet have remembered that it's not the kind of thing he usually does.  Well, alright sometimes.

Next time:  The Fourth Doctor and Sarah Jane investigate the death of Harry.  It’s a long story.

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