By Paul Cornell
I've just had the most peculiar dream.
Reading Paul Cornell's conclusion to the Timewyrm saga can be a disorientating experience. Like the best and worst of dreams, it summons up bizarre and unforgettable images, then leaves you scrambling to make sense of them when you wake. It is undoubtedly a work of great imagination, but I wonder if one read is really enough to get the full measure of it.
The prologue and first chapter are showstoppers. In a playground in Perivale, little Dorothy McShane is dead, murdered by the school bully. In a village church in 1992, parishioners gather for a winter's service, while the vicar chats to an omnipresent force that inhabits his church. The Doctor and Ace arrive in the same place, desperate to pick up the trail of the Timewyrm – only this isn't really Cheldon Bonniface, or even Earth. The townspeople fall to dust, the Doctor panics, and in moments Ace is dead again.
Not too shabby, as openings go! After three novels telling singular stories with a hint of Timewyrm, it makes sense to go right for the jugular here. Revelation is a grand finale – the Doctor and Ace vs. the Timewyrm, with scarcely any distractions in the plot department.
The first thing that really struck me, and probably the thing I'll take away from it the most, is the sheer, rich imagery. We've got a sinister, diminutive astronaut; a fake town on the moon full of people who don't know they're fake; a church transported from Earth to the moon, devastating the town it left behind; a friendly, formless spirit with a church as its home, and a reverend for a best friend; and, as beautifully depicted on the cover, the Doctor literally dancing with Death, across the moon's surface to his demise – on his own terms. Cornell's ideas mix the grand and the small – in fact, there's a line in it that seems to encapsulate this: "Between the holy grail and the cup of tea." Cornell takes us on a complex, metaphysical journey, but there is always smallness, thoughtfulness, heart.
While Revelation is ostensibly an epic battle between the Doctor and the Timewyrm, which is what we're expecting and what needs to happen, that is not – in the tradition of the better New Who episodes – what it's really about. This is a journey into the Doctor's soul, and Ace's as well. It's a novel that gets to the nitty-gritty of them both, explains and justifies them, warts and all. Ace benefits enormously: a pivotal moment in her life, when she decides to break away from the crowd and stand up for others, is brightly illuminated.
“'Her name,' she shouted, wincing at the difficulty of swimming against the tide, 'is Manisha Purkayastha. And my name isn't Dorry.' She looked up at the sky above and yelled it as loudly as she'd ever yelled anything in her life.
'My name is Ace!”
This also feels like a turning point in her relationship with the Doctor. His game-playing is no side-note, as it was in Apocalypse. The majority of Revelation concerns his manipulative side, his guilt over this, and his culpability in Ace's perils. They're both learning to face up to that.
“'I thought – but that means –' a grin began to spread over her face. 'My God! This is part of the game, isn't it? You're playing a game!'
The Doctor stared at her for a moment as if surprised. An old smile spread over his features. 'Yes, and I'm winning. As always.'
'You really are a bastard!' Ace laughed."
But most of that concerns Ace more than the Doctor. As for him, the battle with the Timewyrm takes place in familiar surroundings, with his guilt manifesting and things coming back, quite literally, to haunt him. It's here we learn about him and here, if I'm honest, the book comes closest to overstretching itself. Things get very metaphysical and grandiose as the book races to its conclusion, with Cornell dispensing universe-bending concepts in the space of a few sentences. It's a lot to get your head around, and while the emotional journey is constant and satisfying, the plot becomes a little too intangible at times. It's one of those stories where you're waiting until the last few pages for naggingly crucial answers, while certain other things, like the identity of the Timewyrm's host, seem bizarrely obvious from the get-go.
The Doctor's journey is still an interesting one, full of yet more rich imagery. (Though in my opinion, little occurs that rivals those first few chapters, that wonderfully mind-boggling stuff on the moon.) There are some seriously cool ideas along the way, like the Timewyrm's ability to control the Doctor in his sleep, and past Doctors having their own little afterlives in his mind. (Pertwee and Tom finally meet. It is exactly how it should be.) Cornell doesn't ignore the Doctor cameos we've already had, courtesy of Peel and Robinson. You could even say his afterlife idea is similar to the one John Peel employed, where the Doctor can just summon up a past self to use his character traits. Cornell's is a lot more elegant. He ties together the continuity of these books admirably well, even taking the time to explain a continuity flub in Genesys.
The Timewyrm her/him/itself is an altogether scarier concept in his hands. Peel's movie villain megalomania is toned down, replaced by a disquieting and genuine disregard for life. The story adopts a tone of pacifism, which is very important for Ace as well as the Doctor. Ultimately they must kill the Timewyrm with kindness, which feels like an appropriate end to a destructive journey.
Revelation isn't the easiest book to comprehend. I suspect reading a bunch of New Adventures in a short time hasn't helped. Revelation has big, intriguing ideas and they need room to breathe. Here is a book I feel I need to read again, and slower, some day. But I feel confident in saying it occasionally gets a little too wound up in its mind-bending, at times almost summoning the dread phrase, "self-indulgent". Fortunately Cornell's characters have a strong enough emotional core, and a satisfying enough journey, to keep the whirligig of ideas grounded in something that matters. I wanted something new, and I got it: an ending for the Timewyrm, a bracing new start for the Doctor and Ace. I look forward to a return visit, and a more relaxed look under its surface.