Pity Colin Brake, or at least the 2001 version of him. Writing his first novel, he’s commissioned to cap off one of the most experimental and interesting story arcs in the series’s history, finally answering the question of what will happen in St. Louis when the Doctor (and we) meets Fitz for the first time in a hundred years (or half a dozen novels) and doesn’t know him then send the time lord back into the vortex with his old companion and a much publicised new addition and also following Father Time, an instant classic and one of the best stories the franchise has produced in any medium. Pity him, and then wonder …
Why does Escape Velocity have to be so catastrophically disappointing?
The ‘stranded on Earth’ arc has by and large been very entertaining. Bits of The Turing Test might have been incoherent and as is often the case in Doctor Who some of the climaxes of the novels haven’t quite lived up to the promise of the preceding pages, but we’ve seen a largely coherent description of the passage of time and its effect on our favourite albeit debilitated timelord. It’s been most interesting to see the Doctor thread himself into society, to gather friends and allies and we ended Father Time on a note of optimism and the impression that to be frank, the Doctor had got his shit together and though still not completely in control of his faculties looking forward to seeing the decade out in the knowledge that it’s going to be alright, just wait and see. In Escape Velocity, Brake largely ignores all that and decides that since this may be the only Doctor who novel he ever writes, he’s going to tell the story he wants and basically pays lip service to everything else. In other words, wall wait just there whilst I piss up you.
In other words, wall wait just there whilst I piss up you.
I should say that for much of the time the novel is at least readable, even if its taken a good two weeks to read it, for reasons related to bitter resentment. The story, in which members of an alien race having crash landed on Earth motivate rival earth scientists in developing manned missions into space so that they can liaise with their fleet and argue the case for invasion or not, isn’t bad and offers a decent literal space race, suitably tipping its hat at the rivalry across the iron curtain of Wernher von Braun in the US and Sergey Korolyov back in the USSR. The slightly dull Kulan are probably the alien type this kind of story requires -- like the Stoans in Voyage of the Damned, just human enough for us to see that they don’t all have the same point of view. It’s the kind of romp which is the franchise’s stock in trade and has been done far worse elsewhere. But why does it have to be so determined to be a romp with dozens of characters and yet another Star Trek-lite space battle when a quest story with a personal angle would have been so much more appropriate?
The meeting in St. Louis, could have been at the climax of the novel and a more thoughtful approach would have made it what the novel is about -- perhaps making the time and place a ticking clock with both Fitz and the Doctor held up for some reason and fighting to get there for their rendezvous which they both do at the last minute or to make it really interesting not -- only to actually enter each other’s company due to an amusing coincidence related to the fact that whatever they’ve been doing is linked. Instead, Brake has the Doctor take over a bar in London, rename it St. Louis and sit in the back brooding for some months until Fitz stumbles through the door which he inevitably does at the appointed time, even though actually travelling to Missouri is the more logical option. Then, the much signposted, much awaited reunion is curtailed in favour of the aforementioned two hundred pages worth of running around only to transpire about two pages before the end and in an ill advised homage to An Unearthly Child. Hardly The Stolen Earth is it? I’m clearly falling into the trap of reviewing what’s not there, but after all the build up, we’re desperate for a story about the Doctor’s search for identity, whereas moments, such as realisation that he is a time traveller are thrown away in a sentence or two.
Hardly The Stolen Earth is it?
You want to be seeing the Doctor coming to terms with the fact that his extended stay on Earth should soon be at an end and his optimism at what may lay ahead, that his quest for knowledge will continue in time and space as he resumes his journey through the cosmos, finally able to see the sights that he‘s been reading about at The British Library all of these decades. Instead, Brake decides to unnecessarily shoehorn in the character of Control, previously seen in two past Doctor novels on the assumption that there is a cross over in readership and who I had absolutely no knowledge of. He apparently appeared in The Devil Goblins From Neptune and The King of Terror, but from what I’ve seen he’s hardly a well loved character; compare all this with the cameo of Iris in Father Time which was done with some humour. The problem is that were not really told who Control is, he doesn’t seem to have much to do with the main story and you hardly miss him when he’s gone. The sub-plot has the look, feel and chemical properties of padding and I spent much of it trying to square it with the character that Stephen Fry played in A Bit of Fry & Laurie. You can’t help but feel that if Paul Magrs had been writing the book it would indeed have been the character that Stephen Fry played in A Bit of Fry & Laurie.
To an extent, such expectations are born of our collective change in presumption as to what Doctor Who should be doing and how story arcs these days do have an epic though emotional quality. But this was being written at the same time that the audio Neverland was being recorded so there was already evidence that the franchise was already sailing its 'ships into uncharted waters. If anything in the preceding forty or so novels had done anything its to emphasise the mythic qualities of the character and the stories and here both are in short supply. Though its interesting to see him and Anji entering the TARDIS together, the Doctor and companion having largely the same reaction to its scale for the first time, it's on their way to save Fitz and planet Earth from the Kulan. Their next reaction? To have cup of tea and sit down and a chat about what to do next. Yes, the TARDIS can sit in the vortex for days before doing something, but this is supposed to be the same man who stole a space shuttle to save his daughter in the previous book! Miranda doesn’t even warrant a mention by the way. Brake’s simplistic characterisation of the Eighth Doctor seems based on a recent viewing of the TV Movie more than anything else and lacks any of the depth injected by the likes of Parkin, Miles, Orman, Blum and Magrs in their version. In places too he seems to be channelling First as though amnesia automatically leads to befuddlement.
Brake is far more comfortable when bending his breezy if sometimes grammatically incoherent style around the supporting characters. Fitz is pretty well described, though now he's conveniently developing amnesia too. There’s a quite wonderful journey through gender politics when a female scientist whose superior position on a team is torpedoed when the Doctor strides in and takes over and a figure like science fiction fan Dave, which could so easily have been a stereotype has very real world concerns, not least in keeping his girlfriend on side and taking her to Brussels does strike a chord as the kind of boneheaded thing some like him (or us to be fair might do). Said girlfriend and new companion Anji, though created by series editor Justin Richards, has a good start here, as she slowly realises that everything her boyf has been saying about aliens is true and a certain quote from Hamlet pretty much covers everything. It helps that at launch time, Richards very particularly publicised that she was inspired by actress Amita Dhiri, or rather he character Milly, from the iconic 90s sex in the chambers drama This Life, so for once we’ve someone in mind and it's often pretty amusing to imagine that often dower figure hurling bricks at windows and the like. She's a neat, useful addition and a brilliant contrast to Fitz, Sam and Compassion.
But the rest? Sweet Jehoshaphat.