Sunday, 25 September 2016

Doctor Who: The Virgin Novels #2 – Timewyrm: Exodus by Terrance Dicks

Doctor Who: The New Adventures
Timewyrm: Exodus
By Terrance Dicks

I read it in a day.  It hasn't even sat on my bookshelf yet.  Can I start all over again?


I didn't have high hopes.  John Peel was a trusted hand at Doctor Who literature, and look where that got us.  I'd place more faith in Terrance Dicks, but not a whole lot more; he can knock out a novelisation like nobody else, but he's just as fond of tropes and clichés as Peel.  He's just a lot better at executing them.

And sure enough, some of Uncle Terry's shortcomings are apparent in Exodus.  He has a strange habit of describing characters by their hair and what they're wearing.  (This reaches a nadir in The Eight Doctors, where Paul McGann's entire personality seems to be the fact that his hair is brown.)  He likes his continuity references, although they're far more specialised and actually appropriate to the story.  The prose has a certain hurry to it; almost as if he's novelising a television script, the action rarely breathes.

Do I care?  Nope.  I couldn't put the thing down.  There isn't a dull page.

It opens in post-war Britain with a difference.  It's What If Hitler Won The War, a sci-fi conceit if ever you've heard one – something even the Doctor and Ace acknowledge!  I love this because it's immediately showing us the effect of (almost certainly) the Timewyrm – no grandstanding "Nothing in ze vorld can schtop me now!" rhetoric from her this time, we just get on with it.

Also good: in a strange ouroboros, the setting is highly reminiscent of The Dalek Invasion Of Earth., which was deliberately similar to the Blitz.  (There's even a body in the river!)  I just lapped this up – it’s maybe my fave story evah – and besides, it isn't a repeat of TDIOE.  The Doctor and Ace are immediately concerned about the change in history (well, the Doctor is – Ace seems oddly unconvinced), and set about finding out what set history on its wrong course so they can go sort it out.  Yep!  Dicks has written Doctor Who's Back To The Future: Part II.  Before I was very far into the book, it was already doing a bunch of things I liked.  (I know this is a bit of a double standard, as I usually hate rip-offs and tropes.  But if you're going to borrow something then as long as you're putting it to good use, bon voyage.)

And we're not at the best bit.  I had assumed, based on Peel's dismissive and mean treatment of the Seventh Doctor, that an old guard like Dicks might do something similar.  This isn't "his" era of the show – his heart is in the Pertwee years, and to an extent the Tom and Troughton years.  And yet, Exodus is to me, a brilliant Seventh Doctor story.  So much of it hinges on him insinuating himself into situations and using his personality to win people's trust.  He is so good at it, we almost never have to suffer the old "Tell me who you are!  A Time Lord?  Oh, pull the other one!" routine.  The Doctor is on appallingly good form throughout, easily winning over Nazi Generals, Gestapo higher-ups and bleedin' Hitler.  What's more, I can totally see McCoy's Doctor, as televised, pulling all of this off.  It could easily have been anti-dramatic to have him succeed so often, but instead it's crazy fun watching him cheek his way through.  (And why shouldn't he be great at it?  He's had enough practice.)

With the Doctor making nice with the Reich, the story takes an unusual, neutral-bordering-on-friendly stance on Nazis.  You're sort of glad to see Hermann Goering at one point.  Of course Ace is here to remind us that they're all bastards, not that most readers really need to hear it, but then the Doctor isn't quite so black-and-white about it.  They're history to him: Hitler is (for all his atrocities) a helpless pawn in time, or he will be without the help of the Timewyrm.  The Doctor is quite happy to rescue him in 1923 if it means setting him on a course for his death in 1945.  That's a somewhat detached, alien perspective, and it's a lot more interesting than going "Boo! Hiss! Hitler!" every time the bloke with the Chaplin 'tache sidles into view.  (For good measure, it's actually plot-relevant that Hitler is even more of a monster than the Timewyrm.  Boo, hiss, etc!)

Speaking of the shouty one: how nice that she takes a backseat to the action.  Peel originated a truly hideous and irritating character in Ishtar, and it's nice to take a break from that, even though it's "her" series.  Dicks sneakily parallels the Timewyrm with his own plot; I suspect Exodus could easily have been a novel without the arc plot, and probably was at one point, but the misdirection of not knowing if all this really is the Timewyrm is just delicious.  And it keeps the series from plunging into "This week the Timewyrm destroys X".  I feel like different writers could really do different things with it.  As for the story Dicks dreams up, I didn't guess where it was going, or who was involved.  There's a spoilery answer to that one for long-term Who fans. (I think the book loses something once the baddie is unmasked, but that may be to do with their tendency to tie up the Doctor and Ace and explain their plans.  It all goes a bit Indiana Jones in the castle scenes, and not in a great way.)

With various jumps in time, the action is constant and colourful; the Doctor's monumental personality keeps his position firmly in check wherever he is.  But Ace fares slightly worse overall.  While she does get to hurl (justified) fury at the Third Reich, not to mention her patented Nitro-9 bombs, she is dangerously close to damsel status at times.  She does an awful lot of "What are you going to do now, Doctor?"  There are very few parallels between Genesys and Exodus, but one is that neither of them really knows what to do with Ace.  Exodus, at least, reserves the torture and attempted-murder for people other than the Doctor.

It's a page-turner, to say the least.  But what I said about it not "breathing" very much doesn't mean the prose is arbitrary or trite.  Just because Dicks sees the value of a cliché ("Never despise clichés, Ace.  The only reason they became clichés is because they work."  Agree to disagree...) doesn't mean he'll always resort to them.  The dialogue is true to the characters, and almost all of it is huge fun.  I had to pause just to appreciate this line about a youthful, unimpressive Hitler: "If he'd gone on like that, he'd have been booed off the stage at a Brownies meeting."  Far from the cack-handed, barely-proofread horror of Genesys, Exodus is often funny even in technical terms; e.g. the scene where the Doctor and Ace are being bugged in a hotel room, and we cut from Ace mentioning Nitro-9 to the listener hearing "No! No! No!" from the Doctor.  In the whole book, I counted one typo ("With profound relief Ace work up"), although this being a reprint, who knows how many it started with…

Exodus is rollicking.  It's a rollicker.  There are rollicks.  I'm... slightly delirious from blustering through a book in a day, but I had such a good time.  Okay, it's not high art, and I suspect it's not representative of the New Adventures as a whole.  Take out the few (entirely appropriate) swear-words and it could be a TV script.  Leave them in and it's almost a (racy, Ian Marter-esque) Target book.  There's little really adult about it, but then not every New Adventure has to push the envelope, so long as it's actually a good book.  Exodus tells a great, fun story at a hell of a pace.  What a relief.



  1. One of my favourites as well. You make me want to reread this soon. I read through the entire corpus of novels from the wilderness years a couple of years ago. Not sure where I found all that time!

    1. Finding the time is half the battle. When I started reading these I mostly worked nights, hence ploughing through 3 Timewyrms in 3 days. Now, with a full time job, it's more of a mission...