CAUTION- REVIEW MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS. THEN AGAIN, IT MAY NOT…
Since ‘Dr Who’ returned to British TV screens in 2005, BBC Books have scored a notable success with their new run of chunky, pocket-sized hardback adventure novels written in the zesty style of the regenerated TV series. Gone are the angst and hard SF of the ‘old’ cumbersome BBC paperbacks which took the series – and the character – off into previously-uncharted territory as adult writers strove to make a family character into something he was never really intended to be. The new series of books, generally running to a manageable 235 pages, are aimed at a lower age range and yet are still able to tell witty, exciting stories which it’s perfectly possible to imagine as part of the TV series they’re inspired by – which is more than can be said for the most of the impenetrable novels published prior to 2005. I’ve dipped into the new series of books now and again – they tend to be released in batches of three and there’s usually at least one which captures my attention (and these books are so successful they even feature in the Top Ten weekly best-seller lists now and again, how mad is that?). The latest three titles include The Eyeless, a space adventure which sees the Doctor travelling alone post-Donna, The Story of Martha, an intriguing anthology of short stories filling in the events of Martha’s ‘missing year’ between the third series TV episodes ‘The Sound of Drums’ and ‘The Last of the Time Lords’ and Beautiful Chaos, a modern day Earth story featuring Donna Noble and her family. Written by long-time fan and series script editor Gary Russell, this is the new title which has most recently caught my eye and helped me pass a pleasant few hours in that odd dead-zone period between Christmas and the New Year.
Having risen up through the ranks of 1980s/1990s ‘Dr Who’ fandom, becoming one of the driving forces behind the popular ‘Big Finish’ range of original full-cast audio recordings and by now becoming script editor on the series itself, it’s fair to say that Gary Russell knows his Who. As part of the current production team he knows exactly how the current/recent cast should sound and behave and in ‘Beautiful Chaos’ he’s written dialogue which you can almost hear the actors speaking. From a poignant opening sequence set post-‘Journey’s End’ we recall an ‘unseen’ Doctor and Donna adventure where Donna returns home on the anniversary of the death her father, ideally to spend some quality time with her Grandad Wilf (so brilliantly portrayed on screen by Bernard Cribbins) and spiky Mum Sylvia (Jacqueline King on TV). The Doctor, left to his own devices whilst all this family rebonding is going on, soon stumbles on a mystery…and the Doctor loves a mystery. There’s a new computer whizzkid in town, one Dara Morgan (think about it…) and in the space of a few short months he’s moved himself into a prime position in the world’s computer software market. His latest gadget, a brand new whizzbang MP3 player-type device, is about to be introduced to a breathless population. Meanwhile something very strange is happening to a group of random people with a very special Italian connection…and there’s an evil, twisted face in the sky…
‘Beautiful Chaos’ is a rattling old yarn, scarcely pausing to draw breath from its first page. I tend to be of the view that ‘Dr Who’ works best when it’s on Earth, telling stories about real identifiable people in real identifiable places. Russell’s story is set now, today (or tomorrow?) in and around Chiswick, home of super-temp Donna Noble, and areas of London the author seems to know quite well. It’s a story about today, as well; global computer networks, technology used as a weapon and real 21st century people dealing with real 21st century lives. Russell creates some interesting new characters but his heart is clearly with the Noble family and there are pages devoted to the frosty Donna/Sylvia relationship in dialogue which sharply and beautifully evokes the relationship as depicted on screen. The book picks up on some ideas barely touched on in the series – the death of Donna’s father Geoff (Howard Attfield, who played the character on TV, died during the production of series four which necessitated some swift rewrites and recasting to bring Bernard Cribbins back into the mix) is the catalyst for the story and for a studied exploration of the fractured nature of the Noble family relationships. There are times when Russell almost seems too interested in this and the story occasionally sidetracks for another snipey conversation between Donna and Sylvia but with dialogue as real and heartfelt as they’re given here, adding a depth to the relationship the TV episodes could only display in TV shorthand, it’s hard to complain too much. More interesting still is the development given to Grandad Wilf Mott; here he has a sort-of girlfriend, a fellow astronomer named Netty who, tragically, is suffering the early stages of Alzheimers. Russell builds up a sweet, sympathetic relationship between the two pensioners and whilst it becomes fairly obvious about halfway through the book that, in story about mental and physical possession by an alien entity, Netty’s condition is going to be fairly central to the resolution, the bond between Wilf and Netty is nicely developed and, like the best of the new TV series, even brings a little tear to the eye on occasion. Or maybe that’s just me being a Great Big Softy?
The Doctor, as portrayed by David Tennant, is a tough one to get down on paper. The whole power of the character on TV is captured by the fire of Tennant’s energised, manic performances, his rapid speech patterns, his mercurial quickfire wit and the fact that he seems to be almost always on the move. This is hard to translate into prose but Russell does his best. For the first third or so of the book Tennant’s character comes and goes – there are times when this is a generic Doctor, saying Doctory things without always sounding like Tennant saying Doctory things. But as the plot ramps up a notch and moves into high gear this is the tenth Doctor through and through, dexterously verbally and physically outwitting his opponents and remaining one step ahead when it looks to all and sundry as if he’s really several steps behind.
As a lifelong fan of ‘Dr Who’ it’s obviously too great a temptation to resist for Russell and his snappy, eminently readable text is peppered with dozens of references to the ‘Dr Who’ canon – some of it about as obscure and arcane as it might be possible to imagine. ‘The Fishmen of Kandalinga’ indeed!! But Russell balances it well – there are plenty of references to recently-screened TV adventures and a few discreet references to older TV adventures and even stories from non-TV novelisations and comic strips, none of which are particularly troublesome as to newer fans they’re just references to things they don’t know about and they’re a nice little wink for people like me who know far, far too much about this stuff. The whole story, of course, is a sequel to a 1976 TV four-parter starring Tom Baker….and that’s as much as I’m saying for the sake of the spoiler-sensitive.
Some of the early books in the new ‘Dr Who’ range have been a little bit simplistic, kid’s stories without a lot to engage an adult audience. Russell has ramped things up a notch here with a string of contemporary/post-modern references and even the potentially-troubling constant reuse of a very mild swear word (but then it’s one the TV show has used a couple of times in the last few years without causing a lot of fuss so I daresay it’ll go largely unremarked here). Beautiful Chaos is a lot of fun, a book which, with no disrespect to its audience, is a good, page-turning easy read. If, like me, you’re already missing the dynamic between the Doctor and Donna you won’t be able to resist this one (last?) fix of one of the best pairings in the show’s history and if the ‘Dr Who’ Christmas episode has left you yearning for a bit more of the show’s very special brand of magic and adventure, Beautiful Chaos is probably the best way to satisfy your craving until we land on the ‘Planet of the Dead’ around Easter.