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August 13, 2008

Father Time

Fathertime Father Time is awesome.  When the BBC held The Big Read in 2003 to find the nation's favourite books, I was unabashed in voting for this novel in the online section of the poll.  Partly this is because spin-off novels tend to be ignored in such things as though its entirely impossible that they might be considered in the same breath as other literature even though, as SFX’s recent articles have uncovered its often more difficult to write within a shared universe than one of your own choosing, but mostly because as I said, it's awesome.

In the end I was quite disappointed if unsurprised that my probably solitary vote did not lead to Parkin’s book receiving the advocate treatment with Paul McGann or whoever telling us in their allotted twenty minutes exactly why Father Time is awesome and so by way of a substitute I thought I’d offer my reasons instead and since this will involve spoiling a great deal of the book, you’ll have to click the link to read the rest.  If you don’t want to spoil the surprises all I’ll say is that this isn’t just one of the best of the Eighth Doctor novels, but one of the best Doctor Who stories of all time.  Period…

It’s quite surprising at the opening of the first chapter to find the author writing in the first person, like someone telling a story to us, consciously putting themselves into the narrative. Even at its most experimental, the usual process in Doctor Who is for the author to make themselves subservient to the storytelling, rather like the invisible editing style of old Hollywood.  Parkin is far more indie in his approach, quite comfortable in digressing into irrelevant little bits of character and description which, whilst not moving the plot forward, provide the kind of atmosphere which can sometimes be lacking.  He’s using the format the best of its advantage, often nonchalantly changing the point of view mid-scene often in ways which heighten both tension and comedy.  But -- and this is important -- it's never self-indulgent.  When he notices that the story is most important, he instigates a more traditionalist style and lets that take precedence.  Not once does it seem like he's simply falling into reinterpreting some familiar tropes.  At the release of the film There Will Be Blood, critic Mark Kermode described it as rewriting the language of cinema as you watch.  In Father Time, Lance Parkin rewrites the language of Doctor Who as you read.

The book is set in three time periods, at the beginning middle and end of the eighties, and it’s the first time we can really see the amnesiac Eighth Doctor develop over a sweeping period and I think it's the longest continuous period the Doctor's effectively involved in one story (he comes and goes in things like The Ark). The plot is fairly well described on the back of the book -- after helping to repel an alien invasion, the Doctor adopts an orphan, Miranda, who’s not of this world and may be of his and we see how he deals with fatherhood.  Parkin’s backdrop is very much of the period, and the story takes place in a far more realistic setting than we’re used to.  This is Thatcher’s Britain and the Doctor notices that the best way to protect his new daughter is to become a yuppie and take advantage of his skills in the prevailing financial upsurge.  It’s the Whoniverse equivalent of Stephen Poliakov’s drama Friends and Crocodiles as we see the decade unfold around the time lord with him coasting its advantages and disadvantages, advising businesses on how to improve themselves so that he can purchase his own very big (secure) house in the country.

One of the alien invaders at the opening is clearly supposed to be the transformer Bumblebee

Pop culture references abound, most of them knowing and most of them right.  Having grown up in that decade I grinned at mentions of everything from Star Wars to Star Trek to Buck Rogers via Phil Collins.  He also wraps them into the context for the story.  One of the alien invaders at the opening is clearly supposed to be the transformer Bumblebee and the close of the novel is set on the Starship Enterprise (NCC-1701-D) by another name.  When reflecting back on the decade its really this that I remember and not the political situation -- these are things which you sort of pick up later in life at college or watching documentaries on BBC Four.  The novel effectively a quasi-historical Doctor Who story unafraid to set itself with a time period when the show was actually on the air and not simply produce a nostalgia and comics fabrication ala Remembrance of the Daleks or Ashes To Ashes -- this is exactly what Britain was like at the time

I managed to write in relatively glowing terms about a certain episode from the recent series of Doctor Who though in a minxian manoeuvre I failed to mention Father Time and also the fact that Lance Parkin not only went there first, he did a much better job of it.  Watching the Doctor build a relationship with Miranda over a decade makes his attachment to her a far more realistic proposition which means when he does admit that fatherly love for her it's heart wrenching.  It also allows Miranda to develop, from tweeny to teenager to young adult, smarter than he friends yet going through the same growing pains.  She’s also funny and a mirror image of her Dad, often seeing relationships as source of discovery more than anything else.  There’s a wonderful moment when she’s in a clinch with a boy and has to decide if blushing would be too much -- she can actually control those emotions and wonders which of them she should be deploying at that moment.  It's unfair to make the comparison, but much of the attraction of Jenny was Georgia Moffatt's, um, performance, whereas Miranda is dimensionally transcendental (sorry!).

She’s also funny and a mirror image of her Dad

Having helped originate the character in The Dying Days, it’s no surprise that Parkin should be able to recreate the man so intelligently.  What is surprising is how the Doctor suddenly seems to have had his balls handed back to him, after spending the past four or five novels essentially being carried along by events.  Much of this is because he’s not trying to defend the Earth especially -- all of his motives are about protecting Miranda and through this he becomes the hero we’ve all loved once again.  Sure there are cherishable Doctorish moments, such as when he constructs a sonic suitcase which he hopes to miniaturise some day and offers to explain later when something seems like it would take too long to explain.  He’s at his best when taking down the aforementioned transformer, he also pushes aside assassins from the future, and in a master stroke, when she’s captured and orbiting the Earth in a warship, steals a space shuttle so that he can go and meet and then, in a move which seems like the ‘I’m coming to get you speech…’ from Bad Wolf times a hundred somehow manages to take over the warship using just the sound of his voice.  As I said, awesome.

We also finally get an idea of what its been like to have been living on the planet unaging for a century.  We hear what happened when he woke up on the train carriage a century before and exactly why he hasn’t really become involved in world affairs even though as he muses he could have made it a better place.  Elements of all of the previous novels are mentioned, including that reference to Claudia from The Stranger who we discover he met in 1976 when as he puts it “spending some time with a … friend” the cheeky pause telling you everything you ever need to know about that relationship should you never want to read about it on the page.  Then, just as you think everything has settled down, he goes to visit Betty from Casualties of War in hospital and in a heartbreaking moment we realise that he’s kept in touch with her across the years and through her has realised that he can’t be of Earth because he hasn’t made the same ties as she has and that Miranda is his attempt to do just that.

the cheeky pause telling you everything you ever need to know about that relationship

Debbie I’ve come this far without mentioning the real companion of the story or his adversaries.  Debbie Castle is Miranda’s teacher who eventually after losing her husband moves in with the Doctor.  The nature of their relationship is generally hinted at though the impression is that she's very much fallen into the companion and their sparring is similar to the Doctor/Donna mode and like Tate’s character we see her develop emotionally across the novel from being in thrall to an abusive husband to becoming a confident, intelligent person and it’s a tragedy that events mean that she can’t continue past the end of this novel, especially since she is the most rounded of the characters we‘ve seen in the Earth arc.  At the time of publication there was a, now sadly deleted, article at the BBC website which suggested what a set visit would be like if Father Time was being filmed.  It suggested Minnie Driver would play Debbie, which is a perfect fit.

The alien adversaries from the future don’t want to destroy the Earth. They simply want to find and kill Miranda for the sins of her parents, more specifically her father and his genocidal tendencies (it's since been hinted by Parkin that he father might indeed be the Doctor, but some future incarnation of him).  They’re grim because they want to kill a young girl and that’s more than enough.  After the initial flurry of activity, which features a couple called the Hunters, not quite human with the verbal wit of the Hale and Pace characters The Management (in a good way if there is one), they’re stripped back to Ferran, a young buck who wants to love Miranda as much as he wants to kill her.  By the end of the book he’s grown up and totally mad, yet for a while he’s also rather sympathetic and as nervous as boys often are when trying to talk to girls.  His conquest is based on love rather than property which makes it a very potent change, even if by the end he turns into the kind of raving loon which is usually needed at the epic conclusion of such stories.

I’ve noted in previous reviews how various elements and scene look like dry runs for the new series and like The Dying Days, Father Time also seems like its been carefully stripmined for ideas.  Though Miranda’s journey has elements of Jenny’s story hotwired into them, most of the time its individual moments which seem slightly familiar, though the biggest comes in the closing moments when one of the pilot of the very bug ship muses as he sees the Doctor face fill the view screen:  “The Pilot had heard legends of the Doctor - everyone had: how he’d destroyed planets, how he’d wiped out whole intelligent species, how he’d brought darkness to the universe, how he travelled through time and space wiping out his enemies and turning those he abducted into monsters and terrorists.”  Sound familiar?

Throughout you’re acutely aware that the writer having become so thoroughly conscious of the mythology that he’s able to ignore most of it

I suspect I’ve ultimately failed in the above to really explain why this is such an awesome book.  It’s not so much the brilliance of these individual elements but the fact that they’re all interacting in the same story.  Throughout you’re acutely aware that the writer having become so thoroughly conscious of the mythology that he’s able to ignore most of it and produce something that’s both nothing like any Doctor Who novel you’ve ever read and yet have Doctor Who running right through it.  It’s intangible and impossible to really put your finger on why Father Time should be more successful than most other stories except that throughout you feel as though it all means something, you’re never bored, that nothing looks like a perfunctory scene to get you to the next bit and that one every page there’s a moment which has you grinning or even laughing out loud.

At time of publication it must have seemed revolutionary, with this very emotional version of the time lord risking everything to save one person, someone he loves, and yet to an extent that what we’ve now been seeing week in and out on a Saturday night.  Then, just as the book should be slowing down, there’s a scene which acts almost as one of those mid-season trailer suggesting treats to come which also offers the Doctor that grain of hope he’s been waiting for -- that come 2001 many of the questions about himself and his place in the universe will be answered.  No wonder, in what turns out to be my favourite moment, when offered the find all of this information out about who he is and what his future holds via a giant futuristic library he decides that since he’s come this far to do that would be cheating.  In other words, no spoilers…

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