Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Doctor Who: The Virgin Novels #19 – Blood Heat by Jim Mortimore

Doctor Who: The New Adventures
Blood Heat
By Jim Mortimore

Doctor Who and the Silurians.  The show's writers seem inexorably drawn to that subject, and quite literally that plot, and it's almost always the same: Silurians want the Earth back, man won't share, tragic consequences, regretful comment from the Doctor, credits.  There are variations on the theme – sometimes it's Sea Devils instead of Silurians, and Chris Chibnall ducked the tragic finale by, uh, not bothering to resolve it at all – but it's always an imitation of Malcolm Hulke's original, rather grown-up story.  It was Doctor Who of a different sort, and we were clearly impressed.

Blood Heat represents, if still not an all-new story for the Silurians, at least a new spin on Hulke.  What if the Silurians had succeeded in wiping out most of humanity?  What if the Brigadier didn't bomb Wenley Moor at the end?  What if the Doctor died and what was left of humanity had to fend for itself?  Absent the restrictions of an ongoing television programme, where even sci-fi can't rock the boat that much (or not for long), Jim Mortimore has the chance to craft a world where this is the norm: where this abominable future can still be made into something good, and is worth fighting for in its own right.  Blood Heat still can't resist underlining that there's a main universe and an aberrant one, and that Universe B's days are numbered, but it comes pretty close to escaping the let's-just-get-out-of-here trap of most parallel universe stories.

The Silurians' world is like a Doctor Who Unbound story tinged with Day Of The Triffids, Planet Of The Apes and Jurassic Park.  (Speaking of Unbound, it's quite specifically like Sympathy For The Devil, which is set in a world where Jon Pertwee's Doctor never turned up to help UNIT.)  If I'd read this when I was a bit younger, it'd be absolute mana: there's something weirdly satisfying about seeing a familiar world gone to hell, and consequences for characters we recognise.  The world itself is splendidly haunting: all of humanity's progress is rusted and useless, and apart from the Silurians' brutal control of the climate and of the hodge-podge of dinosaur species roaming the wild, even the more familiar animal life has got it in for us.  There's a grimly spectacular scene involving a pack of ravenous dogs, and it's by no means the only example of bloody horror here. 
Dinosaurs feast or get ripped apart; Silurians murder or get the same in kind; even humans (inevitably) turn on one another, for a variety of reasons.  The body count is a bit like watching a clock in a time travel montage.

Probably the strongest example of "Universe B" is its alternate characters.  Let's face it, that's usually the highlight of parallel universe stories – a surprising rarity in Doctor Who, we've at least seen a world of dictators and eye-patches, where Nick Courtney got to be The Bad Brigadier.  He's not quite so clear cut "evil" here: still the recognisable military mind of Series Seven, except the warmth of the UNIT Family was never lit, so he's determined to protect humanity at any cost.  He doesn't especially like the new Doctor (who is even more unpredictable than Pertwee), and he has no qualms in asking Liz Shaw to do terrible deeds.

She's amazing, too: utterly world-weary but still buggering on, her characterisation here is the closest to what we knew on-screen, and it made me realise we wuz robbed with just four Liz stories.  She's the conscience of the new, beaten-down humanity.  And she is very alone.  Then there's Benton, stripped of all the cuddly warmth you'd find on TV: a coldly efficient killer, loyal to the Brig but driven by a hatred of the "reps", this is not someone who would kindly offer a mutant maggot its din-dins.  And finally there's Jo Grant.  Little more than a haunting what-if, poor Jo has lost her mind – and a baby.  A feral mess, she's an acute reminder to the Doctor of what's been lost.

The established characters fare better than the new ones.  The way the narrative moves, in hurried chops between the Doctor and Liz over here, Ace and Benton over there, Bernice over in... somewhere... doing something, there isn't really time to build anyone new.  Even the Silurians benefit from familiarity, as their leader turns out to be a reformed Morka (aka the mutinous Young Silurian), and one of their cruellest lieutenants is Ichtar (who hasn't changed a wink).  Conversely, there are plenty of people working in UNIT's Cheddar Base, and a bunch of Nut Hatch-esque land-dwellers who just didn't leave an impression on me.  That choppy narrative style is the root of a few problems, if I'm honest; it occasionally feels as if we're missing some plot point or moment, be it the Doctor's discovery of the human HQ, or an initial conversation with Liz about parallel universes, or any kind of grounding for the Doctor's eventual, barmy-even-by-his-standards plan to save the day.  It reaches a head as the finale thunders towards us, which is fair enough as jumping from one bit to another is a way to wring tension, but a lot of the novel felt like that.  It was hard to settle, or for people and settings to breathe.

There are still great, evocative moments like seeing the ruined cities, and quaint little ones, like when Ace is hungry and the Doctor pulls sandwiches and a hot thermos from his pockets.  And there are brilliantly disturbing ideas aplenty: we get a first-person view of the alt-Doctor's death, and Ace finds his corpse, complete with rusted sonic screwdriver.  Nothing says "New Adventures" quite like murdering the old ones!  For good measure, the Doctor adopts his predecessor's TARDIS – a somewhat head-spinning switcheroo that, thanks to spoilerriffic Wikipedia (grr!), I now know will be with us for quite some time.

In all the parallel universe excitement and twisted old characters, you could almost overlook the "New" aspects.  An intriguing arc has begun about the Doctor's timeline being manipulated by someone – I'm dead curious who, although it's difficult to think of really more than three suspects.  (Or one, if a certain synonym for "interference" means anything.)  The original TARDIS is having as bad a time of it as ever: sunk in tar on a soon-to-be forgotten world, it deserves a rest after the continual falling apart and blowing up that the New Adventures throw at it.  The Doctor himself is still contemplating hanging up his hat (yeah right, Doc), but can't resist taking another roll of the Silurian dice.  Mortimore poignantly articulates his dilemma wherever possible.  "I should think the edmontonia's got at least as much right to live as either of us, wouldn't you?"  /  "I'm not the Brigadier, you know."  /  "The Silurians aren't monsters, are they?"  /  "You can begin by helping me."  The Doctor said quietly, "To restore Mankind to its position of supremacy on this planet?"  "That's correct."  "And the Silurians?"  "They can be–"  There was an urgent knock at the door.

Ace and Bernice fare less well.  Once again, it wasn't clear if Bernice was even in this until late in the writing process, and sadly it shows: not only is she absent, but it scarcely occurs to the Doctor or Ace to go looking for her.  Consequently she was barely on my mind.  When she finally shows up (p.160) she's as rich and funny as ever, but it's a shame she's still in the bizarre what-to-do-with-you world of, to pick one example, Transit.  Aren't we past that?  I wonder how there was still so much uncertainty around her, since Lucifer Rising (co-written by Mortimore) was apparently written, complete with Benny, before Blood Heat.  Then again, for all I know, maybe Blood Heat was waiting on Jim Mortimore's hard drive beforehand.

As for Ace, I'm wondering if there's much you can realistically do with her any more.  She's got her badass space training and her smart-bombs, and she more or less trusts the Doctor these days, but then again she's still haunted by Manisha (which at least she can do something about here in Universe B) and, by the book's end, we're right back to not trusting the Doctor again.  The constant ping-pong of are-Ace-and-the-Doctor-okay cannot help making her look like an indecisive kid, which surely – following her Love And War time-out – she is not.

Blood Heat is a big, satisfying action story that offers a genuinely different resolution to The Only Silurian Story Ever Told.  You know throughout the book that you don't know how this is going to turn out, and that lends an extra sense of excitement to it all.  Nonetheless, there's an odd feeling of summary to the narrative, which seems logical given the existence of a new Director's Cut.  Despite the spectacular bangs and splats that pepper the story, there isn't a particular dense plot, or any characters that I felt greatly concerned for.  Although people are the most important thing here, that term thoughtfully applying to human and Silurian alike, it's still a case of savouring the vistas and enjoying the set-pieces more than pondering the lives involved.   Sign me up for the longer cut; what's printed here is a cool parallel universe What If, but not a great deal more.


1 comment:

  1. This novel has many interesting ideas: an alternate universe created from the death of the third Doctor to the Silurians and the subsequent decimation of mankind to a plague and the devolution of earth into a hybrid world mixed up from various prehistoric eras. There are alternate but realistic counterparts to many beloved characters from television, and they are fully realized enough to conduct very compelling conversations about war and peace, expediency and principle, sacrifice and humanity, fate and choice, cooperation and annihilation.

    That said, for the most part I did not enjoy this novel, because it has many very tedious descriptions of combat and wandering about. The scene where Bernice and her new friend somehow fisticuff their way through a veteran submarine crew is both confusing and incredible. All in all, there is simply too much killing in this book for my taste. And Ace remains a psychopathic supersoldier in this novel (Why did none of these authors have the courage to retroactively rewrite the horrible continuity created by Warhead and Deceit? Return the Sophie Aldred version of Ace to us, please!), although at least she has some good moments with Manisha. (I was not impressed by the author’s interpretation of “white kids firebombed it” so that it turns out that not only was the house burnt down, but the inhabitants also suffered death by burning: a melodramatic incident made even more bathetic.) Bernice unfortunately is sidelined for the most part, but she remains a very likable character and good companion.

    This book was awfully slow reading, but the plot twists at the end were at least worth reading all the way through. I was impressed by the Doctor's huge solution (a foreshadow of "Journey's End") to the immediate crisis and by his difficult handling of the bizarre aftermath.