Even with Big Finish’s rather fabulous special release The Company of Friends, the idea of dealing with the Eighth Doctor in a past/missing/lost adventure/story context is still a fairly rare, some might say unusual concept. There have only been a few short fictions, the flashback sections of Wolfsbane and a vignette in IDW’s The Forgotten comic strip, for the simple reason that with the exception of the TV movie, Eighth has been defined in three different ways by three different publishers and it’s incredibly difficult to sell a character which the majority of the great unwashed only recognise from about an hours worth of (highly rated) television in the mid 90s. Stick Tom and Lis on the cover of something and you’ve an instant audience because they know what to expect. Stick Paul on there and outside of fandom (and even in some corners of fandom) and the results are confusing at best.
Which is why Nick Wallace’s Fear Itself, is itself something to cherish. Appearing after the shutters on the regular Eighth Doctor novels had been pulled down, and featuring advertising for the first and second wave of nu-Who novels with Ninth, Rose and Captain Jack when they were in a good mood in the back, this was the last hurrah for the character in BBC Books but is set between Earthworld and Vanishing Point and like the past Doctor novels has been written to fit right into that era, if it can be called an era (The Stephen Cole era? Do people call it that?), and precisely the point I’m at in my j-word through this version of the timelord’s adventures. Not having read anything from this period before, it’s just another novel to me, but for fans if must have been something quite special and surprising.
I won’t be able to judge how seamlessly it fits until I work through the next book, but it’s a credit to Wallace that even though he was writing this four or five years after the event, Fear Itself reads like the next natural book in the series. Following directly on from the events of Earthworld, the book opens on Mars in 22nd century with Anji already ensconced as a business news reporter and together we witness the destruction of a space ship orbiting Jupiter which we quickly discover was the temporary residence of the Doctor and Fitz. Fear Itself is the story, told in flashes back and forward, of why Anji is making a life for herself in the future and what her friends were doing before they apparently lost their lives.
Rather like Alejandro González Iñárritu’s miserablist drugs and faith drama 21 Grams we greet the regulars in three different timeslots constantly flashing backwards and forwards (not unlike also Big Finish's audio Time Works), with the truth of events and how they’re connected not revealed completely until the climax. And as that final truth impacts on everything which has gone before, like Iñárritu’s film, it’s very tempting to go back and read the book again to see how this knowledge explains or changes our understanding of the motivations of the characters. About as complex a Doctor Who story as there’s been probably and it’s this constant sense of mystery that keep you turning the pages and even though ultimately the structure Wallace has employed masks what isn’t the most original of plots in Doctor Who terms, he’s to be applauded that you don’t realise that until some time after you’ve finished.
The characterisation is vivid which is important because there are a lot of bodies to keep track of. It helps that Wallace usually introduces us to a character then undercuts our perception of them by showing us the same figure four years previously but the approach and difference is thankfully more the final few episode of Battlestar Galactica and less Defying Gravity (where it just seems to be about wearing different pants). On the one hand Caroline Arquette is a hardened soldier and wife but no too far into the past she was the nice girl across the bar that her husband quite liked and wanted to ask out. That husband, Robbie, was just a deckhand but is now a figure of real authority on the ship keeping the thing from falling apart.
In short, it’s amazing and by far one of the best of the books. Nothing is wrong with it. At all. Wallace was apparently influenced by Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus novels for goodness sake – how aspirational is that? Though he would go on to write bits and pieces for Big Finish this was the only full length Who novels he’d get the chance to write, which is a tragedy. I’d love to see what he’s make if nu-Who. So if it sounds like I’m being as deliberately vague about the details as I usually am when reviewing one of the nu-Who books (not mentioning at all one of the main action elements), it’s because this one of the few occasions when I’d genuinely recommend you read one of these EDAs even if you didn’t following the series and I don’t want to spoil it (synopsis available here if you really must).
I don’t think you’d be too lost either. Perhaps expecting that new fans might pick up the novel just as the new series was starting, Wallace layers in loads of information explaining why the Doctor seems to have the majority of his memory missing, why Fitz is unsure of whether he’s still friends with him and why Anji isn’t sure if she likes either of them but cares enough that she’d head halfway across the solar system looking for them. He’s probably also included some foreshadowing for later events (in the acknowledgements he thanks Lance Parkin for a peak inside The Gallifrey Chronicles) but since I’m reading these in order I will have missed those.
BBC Books stopped publishing past Doctor novels in late 2005 and there’s been no word yet as to whether there’ll be anything new. The tragedy is that having built up this publishing history, if they do produce any past Eighth Doctor novels, despite this long publishing history, they’re unlikely to revisit any of these eras which is a real shame, especially if the results are as deft as Fear Itself. He’ll either be travelling alone, or they’ll create some new companion for the occasion which is a real shame. As I’ve said on many occasions, for some people, these books were the continuation of the tv series and just as important and it seems unfair that we’ll end up getting the umpteenth adventure for the Sixth Doctor and Mel when clearly a revisit with Eighth and Sam or Eighth and Anji and Fitz could be far more entertaining and slightly less jaded.