Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Doctor Who: The Virgin Novels #5 – Cat's Cradle: Time's Crucible by Marc Platt

Please excuse the poor quality Google image.
As for why I don't have the book any more,
and hence can't photograph it... um...
Doctor Who: The New Adventures
Cat's Cradle: Time's Crucible
By Marc Platt

There are currently three Amazon reviews for Time's Crucible, and at least two describe it as "fast-paced".  Ahem, no.  If this is fast-paced then so, surely, is The Web Planet.  (Aka The Two And Half Hour One With Space Butterflies And Villain Fungus.)  If we're prepared to stretch the definition that far, we can probably apply it to Andy Warhol's Sleep, an experimental 5-hour film in which nothing occurs but a friend of Warhol's, sleeping.

Time's Crucible is not fast-paced.

I knew little about it going in other than it was written by Marc Platt, esteemed author of some of my favourite Doctor Who stories.  The dazzling, often misunderstood Ghost Light; the mercurial "What if the Doctor never left Gallifrey?" tale that is Auld Mortality; the greatest Cyberman story ever told, Spare Parts, which finally made those semi-ridiculous Dalek knock-offs as tragic and scary as they're supposed to be.  And of course, he wrote Lungbarrow: that grand and most famous of New Adventures, full of such world-building mythos that its echoes ripple still.  (Only, like, 90 books to go...)  In short, I was optimistic.  "Marc Platt," I would have said a few weeks (months? Years?) ago before I started reading this, "now there's a writer who knows his onions."

From the outset this is the sort of book that is not going to appeal to everybody.  Doctor Who is sci-fi, sure, but it's rarely the sort of hard sci-fi you might struggle to understand or read.  Doctor Who is such a malleable format that it usually melds with something else anyway: the TARDIS can literally drop you into other genres, after all.  So if I don't like Time's Crucible, it doesn't mean nobody will.

But here we are: I hated it.  I have rarely, if ever, been as bored and irritated as I was reading this book.  Time's Crucible is 275 pages of punishing, crushing tedium the likes of which I would never have dreamed possible.  ("Dreams?" cry Statler and Waldorf in the still-recovering depths of my brain.  "Those were nightmares!")  I thought Genesys was bad, but I'd read that book again – brainless, godawful typo-ridden dreck that it was – before reappraising this festering, unholy quagmire.

What's so bad about it?  Simple: there's no story.  Not a bad story, not a dull story, just no damn story at all.

Here's what happens: the TARDIS collides with an ancient Gallifreyan time ship.  A nightmarish city is created, and the time ship's bewildered crew, as well as Ace and the Doctor (in that order) mill around trying to make sense of multiple time zones.  A gigantic monomaniacal lamprey with a mouth at both ends (or rather, an arse for a face) rules over them all, except one of their number, Vael, who may or may not have plans of his own.  The Doctor, presumed dead and maybe or maybe not amnesiac, looks on.

Or in a slightly smaller nutshell: Ace and a bunch of bland Gallifreyan nobodies stumble around a grey wasteland for 200 pages accomplishing nothing while a big worm talks to itself.  Eventually the TARDIS stops playing silly buggers and normal service resumes.  Insert abstract imagery, flashbacks to old Gallifrey and a cat, and be prepared to smash your head against the nearest wall.

This is stifling, needlessly obtuse literature.  At the start, the "story" bounces between the Doctor and Ace suffering a Dali-esque crisis in Perivale, and ancient Gallifrey.  Talk about easing us into things!  The language struggles to convey impossible concepts, and it's just damn unreadable at times.  I kept re-reading sentences in desperation.

"The thought core of the crew, bound and woven by three years of training, virtually eliminated the necessity for a reality. "
"The molecular haze swirled around him in a chromatic maelstrom."
"The air was getting hazy again in a fresh drift of molecules."
"As she watched, [the walls] dissolved into a slow-churning ferment of dimensional dementia."

And then there's this beauty, ostensibly from Ace's POV:

"The flow of people and time on Ealing Broadway had settled into a smooth drift that was slower than was natural, but it intensified Ace's vision too. She was aware of matter shifting under the force of time's currents, little swirls of microscopic particles that eddied away from so-called solid or animate objects, much as mud slowly shifts in the flow of a river. Ace could have stopped to watch the diaphanous colours of the molecules around her for ever."

Everyone writes differently, but there are certain concepts – and yes, rules – that hold true no matter who you are.  One is that narrative tends to conform to a main character.  In other words, phrases like "so-called solid or animate objects" and "diaphanous colours of the molecules" are not going to occur to Ace, so why put those words, by implication, in her mouth?  It doesn't ring true and it's complete zarking gibbertwaddle to boot, and for god's sake, it's just too soon in the book to ask your reader to do these sorts of cartwheels to make sense of things.

Later, there's a line that typifies the approach I'm talking about.  "It was exactly the sort of thing she had wanted the Doctor to show her. Well cosmic."  See?  It's a little naff, but that's Ace.  For good measure, there are a few dollops of psychoanalysis involving Ace's mother and a couple of characters we saw in the TV run, because well, that's what you do with Ace, innit?  Only it doesn't come close to advancing her as a character and it doesn't have any impact.  It's just, oh look: it's Ace's mum / Ace talking about her mum, as you do.  Shrug.  Paul Cornell did this sort of thing with considerable flair, but if you're not careful it can just feel like items on a list.

Platt goes out of his way to describe things that are as abstract and baffling as he can make them.  It's where almost all his effort goes, while little things like characters who have goals, conflicts that can be resolved, and story fall into the abyss.  You would think that setting a novel in the twisted depths of the TARDIS would be a gift that kept on giving, but no, even that can't save Time's Crucible.  The mad world this story inhabits is as barren and dull as the average Doctor Who quarry, only there are three or four of them jumbled together.  Yippee.

Incidentally, the "it turns out they're really in the TARDIS" bit is supposed to be a twist, much like the true identity of the mysterious "guards" who assist the giant schizophrenic (but oddly harmless) worm.  (He just keeps bumbling around asking if anybody has seen the future.  No, you befuddled boob.  Please stop asking.)  Both developments are obvious from the outset, and bungled in their execution.  At every juncture the drama fizzles, but hey, at least it's weird.

By the end, I had the uncomfortable suspicion that Platt wrote this whole thing just so he could fling a few ideas about Gallifrey into the published world.  Alas, "Babies aren't born on Gallifrey" doesn't exactly fill the required word-count, so the dramatic anathema of The Process, aka the big worm, was added.  (And terrifying he is, too.)  Towards the end, themes not unlike those in Ghost Light finally reveal themselves: the great worm is resistant to change, just as Light was.  But I really don't want to compare the two stories, in case I suddenly lose my love for the other one, or worse, see it for the garbled and dull mess it may have been all along.  Some fans certainly view it that way.  Stay back, Time's Crucible! You will not take Ghost Light from me!

I like new things, and with a range like the New Adventures, I'm certainly open to change.  Isn't that the point?  I've already complained about writers churning out overly familiar stories, because we don't need any more of those.  But for me, you do need to keep at least one foot on the ground, and Time's Crucible is somewhere in the stratosphere, eyes lolling, tongue out and dribbling.

At times I felt unpleasantly like Dave Bowman in the star tunnel of 2001: A Space Odyssey.  But the book obviously has its fans – it would, I suspect, be fair to call it a love-it-or-hate-it affair.  "But Time's Crucible gave us X and Y!" is a popular rejoinder, but then ideas and new bits of canon don't make a book, as far as I'm concerned.  I can only wish its fans well and salute their patience, while I regather my shattered senses and read something that won't make me want to poke my eyes out with the nearest dull implement.



  1. (I found this comment I had posted years ago on Gallifrey Base) That was well weird as Ace would say. Part of me enjoyed figuring out what was going on in this surreal book, and some of the answers were good: ancient Gallifrey, datavores, the Tardis's survival strategy.

    However, this book is definitely too long. There are far too many repetitious passages describing how time-addled and dizzying the Process's world is, how many earthquakes and lightning strikes portend immanent doom, how hopeless and useless the stranded Gallifreyan Chronauts are. The editor should have trimmed some of the repetition.

    Also a clear explanation at the end would have helped. I still had no clear idea about the Process. Throughout the book it was described as mindless and primitive, but it spoke clearly and intelligently: for many pages I assumed that the Pythia was merely controlling it and speaking through it. But that was never made clear, and indeed the ending seems to indicate otherwise: the Process was just a random monster that invaded the Tardis and created a complication for everyone. (I read someone suggest that it was a biological sample which traveled in the Scathe.)
    If I ever finish reading all the other Doctor Who novels, I really want to go back and re-read Crucible. The prehistory of Gallifrey and the strange world created by the Process fascinated me.

    1. I agree with all the above. I'd almost be tempted to read Time's Crucible again, with context, if I hadn't been desperate to save space during a house move and got shot of it. It's made me nervous about Lungbarrow, I can tell you.

      It's weird that I didn't notice reading two bizarrely expressionistic books in a row here. I guess because Revelation is so anchored in character, so that even when it gets a bit too full of itself you still care about it. Time's Crucible doesn't have an anchor that I could find. Even trying to view it as a story that goes from A to B, it's about a dull bunch stuck in a (weird) dump being chased by an, at worst, mildly bemused lamprey. I've had more exciting lunches.

    2. Incidentally, didn't he put this forward as a TV script initially? How the blithery hell would THAT have worked?!

  2. Small but comforting spoiler: Lungbarrow is actually very good and entertaining as well.