I watched the final three episodes of season four again last night for the first time since they were transmitted. There are some episodes which you can watch over and over again but others which require you to be in the right mood because you know what state you’ll be in at the end. I was right; during that final scene in the rain were the Doctor says goodbye to Wilf, I was in pieces (even though the sound mix meant you could hear every rain drop hitting Tennant’s coat). Say what you like about the science and fiction of that story but as ever Russell T Davies understands how to make us care for his inventions. Gary Russell’s Beautiful Chaos is essentially the emotional intensity of that scene spread out across two hundred and thirty-six pages.
The novel is an attempt to explain Wilf’s salute to the Doctor in that scene; they’ve had an adventure together, sparked by the discovery of a new star. The novel is bookended by scenes set beyond Journey’s End with Mr. Mott reflecting backwards, on a missing adventure, the usual stuff about a supercomputer taking over the world via an iPod clone. It’s exactly the kind of runaround which is the franchise’s stock in trade, with screwball repartee between the central partners in crime, explosions, UNIT references and bit with a cat. I’ll not reveal the source of evil, but I guarantee that when you read page ninety-nine of this one you’ll be giving your best Donna Noble impression, like I did: “You’re kidding me…” (assuming you’ve not worked it out already).
acting for all the world like he's anticipating another volume of Lance Parkin's Ahistory.
And it won’t be the last time as Russell unsubtly explains when Beautiful Chaos takes place in relation to chronology of Doctor Who, filling in the odd plot hole and foreshadowing even some of the events that are to come and all (without requiring the old BBC Books device of actually listing the placement on the back of the book) and acting for all the world like he's anticipating another volume of Lance Parkin's Ahistory. He doesn’t just stop at the tv series; the book also follows the recent trend of mentioning old spin-off media in new spin-off media with one outrageous paragraph alluding to a BBC past doctor novel, a Big Finish Sarah Jane Smith audio and a Doctor Who Magazine comic strip with the Seventh Doctor. The Next Doctor’s wall projections is subtle by comparison.
Still, the author is professional enough not to allow these canonicity games to overshadow the emotional core of the story. The Doctor returns Donna to her own time so that she can visit her mum on the anniversary of her father’s death. We're delving deeply into the dynamics of the Noble family and poignantly, considering what happened during the making of the television series, how Wilf has stepped in to fill the gap left by Sylvia’s husband. It’s subject only tackled vaguely on-screen within the alternate reality of Turn Left, but here the proper Whoniverse version is laid bare with the Doctor discovering exactly why this mother doesn’t appreciate him taking her daughter away. It’s about how we deal with grief and how if we’re lucky someone else can come along to fill in the space left in our lives when our loved ones have gone.
So perfectly does Russell capture the Noble family and the actors playing them, particular Bernard Cribbins, that now and then you have to remind yourself that you’ve not already seen this story on screen; you could almost imagine this to be a novelisation (especially with Gary's track record). But what impresses even more is the author’s ability to knot all of these dispirit story strands together so that unlike the television version at times, the local and global elements dovetail and draw from one another and not just in terms of simply putting the Nobles in danger. To say much more would give far too much away, but I’d prepare yourself and have the hankies you got for Christmas tucked up your sleeve ready. You know, just in case.