Book Review: Doctor Who: Tales of Terror
The Doctor Who character is supposed to have certain feel to it, an electrostatic broadcast of maniac, spring-heeled energy, bursts of enthusiasm and wide-eyed wonder at the stars, yet a hidden sadness too which needs frequent distraction (and attention) to stop him (soon to be her) going mad under the weight of eternity and outliving all his friends. This should be played as a quite brilliant and still child-like soul that sees the Universe as a shiny new train set to play with, rewire the physical laws of and look for beings and principles to protect in other races’ messes. He also becomes the things he hates the most (life-takers, haters), so has an existential struggle to know himself and that’s why he needs an audience of companions in his travelling circus to root him in a frame of reference that reminds him what’s normal and balanced. He also gets all the best lines because, in common with bi-polar euphoric/depressives, he has a speedy wit and instant surreal and witty sense of banter. He isn’t Spock. This book should have fulfilled that remit, so that’s what I wanted to assess it against.
I can imagine whoever commissioned this thought it was a commercially realistic idea because it fills the niche of Doctor, in a variety of coats and faces, against Halloween monsters and also picks an alternative event in the seasonal calendar, having over-exploited Christmas Specials. It’s a project then, a commercial writing job rather than a labour of love. They’ve briefed a bunch of pro writers, set a deadline in time for Halloween 2017 and invested in a flashy cover which actually glints. I see they’ve also got another title in this series called The Twelve Doctors of Christmas, so didn’t break with the silvery jingling noises for long (small bells or money spinning opportunism?).
The idea in this is for twelve different doctors (consecutive — but why, given the temporally non-linear character?) and their respective companions to have twelve different adventures with the usual array of naughty adversaries. There is some crossover of characters, but those points are mostly touches that only obsessive Whovians will spot, be delighted by and earn themselves another pot noodle.
The bug-eyed monsters are all the Time Lord’s regular playmates: daleks, cybermen, weeping angels, the Family of Blood, the Celestial Toymaker, the three witches, living plastic and a sort of gorgon in an orbiting museum that I didn’t quite understand (in terms of motivation anyway) and a disguised squid on a cruise ship (Cold War failed experiment) that’s getting jiggy with the octogenarians for reasons known only unto itself. A final fling of the slimy tentacle?
The story of the broken dalek that lives in the woods and persuades children to fetch replacement parts until it gets bored and incinerates them for being annoying was quite a funny idea, with its little tin belly popping-full of toy soldiers. It might as well have been a robot man with a belly full of little toy daleks, as they both counterpoint their dangerous and toy-like qualities.
The weeping angels story was in the style of a camping trip goes wrong but the wolves in the mist that hunt the lost souls turn out to be alien. It was a welcome change to an outdoor style anyway. However, in this story the angels never go beyond being a kind of pack, a faceless group of thugs. In contrast, each weeping angel in the television shows has a certain individual and personal predatory sense to it, scaring you in a polite and elegant way, when played by the hauntingly beautiful siren Sarah Louise Madison. Ethereal, definition: extremely delicate, light and elfin in a way that seems to be not of this world.
The Toymaker Halloween party story was the most gruesome, as passing around body parts is tastelessly diseased, especially when followed up later in the book by the creepy “you’ve been inside this false reality for years” angle. The murderous stalker cyberman on the flying trapeze was too far out of character for me, like Stephen King going all Monty Python. Then there was a giant animated wicker man made from possessed plastic dollies that was a spiritual cousin to the marshmallow man in Ghostbusters.
The book is slightly too “slasher fic” in my opinion but it fills the Halloween fiction niche adequately, also managing to differentiate the voices of all those doctor and assistant actors so you click that they are still in character. I would have liked to see K9 and Nardol somewhere in this though. Ideally, Nardol caught riding K9 in the bath and Martha Jones walking in and just staring at him.
Is it any good? Not especially, apart from the dickie dalek in the woods who’s worried about property developers exposing him. It’s a commercial read that doesn’t really add anything inspired to the Doctor Who cannon, instead just getting on the bandwagon and tapping into the children’s pocket money stream. That’s perhaps undeserved and too cynical because this collection of stories represents a hell of a lot of work, although if you were to experiment by asking anyone who’s read this if they are likely to keep it and read it again, the answer is surely a predictable No. It’s okay if you read it once and have the actors’ pictures in your mind’s eye, but no, it’s not for reading again — and, I guess, thanks all the same though for stirring the television memories.
These stories are standing on the shoulders of giants, obviously, so it is appropriate nostalgia but I think only a reminder of what people liked about the originals. When a school friend recites a funny sketch from television, you smile at the memory of the show, not your friend’s effort, unless they find a way to improve upon the material. This book tried to run at the same standard as the sharp screenplay and script writing in the rebooted series (Ecclestone onward) but it didn’t achieve full equivalence or show any identifiable moments of improvement. There weren’t any imaginative new monsters either — and the angelic Sarah’s poise and Tom Baker’s charming wit were also something this spin-off project couldn’t capture.