Expectation is one of the more intriguing emotions. Before reading Simon Messingham’s The Doctor Trap, I’d expected to open the subsequent review talking about The Most Dangerous Game, Richard Connell's short story from the 1920s in which a New York big game hunter is shipwrecked on a Caribbean island and ironically finds himself being tracked by a Russian aristocrat with a very large gun who gives him a taste of his own medicine. It’s been filmed many times in various guises, most notably as a Hollywood b-picture in the early 30s, shot cheaply on the already standing Skull Island set from King Kong and featuring much of the cast of that film, including Fay Wrey. I was going to write about that story, because the blurb on the back of the book suggests this would be another iteration of it, with the Doctor being chased across a planet by a small army of hunters led by an apparently English aristo this time, replacing Zaroff, the evil genius from the original.
As the book opens there’s nothing to suggest that this going to be any different. We’re introduced to Sebastiene, a Squire of Gothos figure, emperor of his own eco-system who’s invited a society who task themselves on killing the last specimens of dying predatory species to a game across twelve zones, the prize being the last of the Time Lords. Meanwhile, the Doctor/Donna answer a distress call, and having landed at a polar base, soon find themselves in the midst of a remake of John Carpenter’s The Thing with scientists being murdered and fleeing by the dozen. It’s not long, though, before the Doctor is captured and dropped into the first of the hunting zones, Donna’s whisked away to who knows were and reader sits back awaiting endless chapters recreating episode three of The Deadly Assassin with our brown suited friend outwitting each of the different hunters and Sebastiene enjoying the spectacle.
Expectation is such an intriguing emotion because sometimes, just sometimes, expectation can be confounded. To explain how would ruin the first of Messingham’s novel’s many twists but suffice to say that it’s been a while since I’ve read one of these Tenth Doctor novels and found myself wondering exactly what it was going to do next, in which the author is hell bent on keeping the reader on their toes. If a certain recent Big Finish audio was seemingly impossible to review because of a single twist, The Doctor Trap is actually impossible to review because to really enjoy it you can’t know what happens much after page twenty-two. Whilst there are a few familiar beats in what occurs, Messingham unfortunately predicts genre elements that became rather important towards the bottom end of the last season, their application is sufficiently different enough not to matter too much.
I really enjoyed Simon’s Eighth Doctor Novel, The Face Eater, especially the characters, and it’s pleasing to see that nearly ten years later he’s not lost his touch. Sebastiene is a captivating creation, the kind of larger than life adversary that I wish the new series would do more often, so desperate is it to present a kind of realistic human evil. A pretentious Prospero, part pantomime ponce, mainly malevolent menace, his unpredictability underscores everything, weakened by an irrational idiocy. There’s Baris too, the nu-Who Whizz Kid, a Gallifrey One attendee taken to its ultimate extreme. Sadly, the gathering of hunters are a bit of a mixed bag and the author’s clearly constrained by the pagination as to how much personality he can give them; on screen you’d imagine that the actor would be the one to flesh out the details. Not so the Doctor or Donna, both of whom are captured perfectly and now that we know what Catherine Tate is capable of you can only imagine how inspired she’d be in some of the scenes this story would give her.
To downplay things slightly, given that this is a spin-off novel and the general status-quo can’t change, don’t expect (there’s that word again) anything quite as cosmos shattering as the close of The Stolen Earth. Indeed in some ways the author becomes so determined to pull the Axminster out from under us there’s a bit too much happening at the climax. But you can’t criticise the fact that Messingham, whilst still keeping the book largely within the primary age demographic, doesn’t make many concessions in terms of the narrative construction and has perfectly injected the magic ingredients that make a story work for a family audience, though like some of Steven Moffat’s writing for the series I’d say its skewed towards the older members of that group. He's also unafraid to drop in a few fan-pleasing references and so he should. If your story features hunters who chase down the most dangerous monsters in the galaxy, why wouldn’t they want a Dalek head hanging on their wall?
Doctor Who: The Doctor Trap by Simon Messingham
Released: 4th September 2008