Monday, 17 October 2016

Doctor Who: The Virgin Novels #24 – No Future by Paul Cornell

Doctor Who: The New Adventures
No Future
By Paul Cornell

Okay, so we've reached the end of another New Adventures arc: The Alternate History Cycle, or the Oi, Who's Been Fiddlin' With My Timeline? Saga.  And who better to close it than Paul Cornell?  He finished the Timewyrm saga in memorable style, offering an insight into the Doctor and Ace that was at once psychologically bracing and sweetly fannish.  Full of awesome ideas and charming optimism, his book was an indicator of what a New Adventure could be.  Then he wrote Love And War for an encore.  So, yeah, if the Alternate Universe Cycle needs finishing: him, please.

And damn and blast, it turns out he's human after all.

In his introduction to the reprint of Human Nature, Cornell calls No Future "a shoddy collection of in-jokes and continuity references."  I hate to say it, but he's not far wrong.  Possibly urged on by thirtieth anniversary celebrations and a desire to write The Celebratory Novel, No Future eschews the pointed character writing and unique imagery that made his previous books so rich in favour of, well, as per a note at the start, Action by HAVOC.  It's ostensibly quite fun, but as the resolution to a multi-book arc, not to mention a particular character's journey, it's something of a bodge-job.

Who's been manipulating the Doctor's fate?  A perhaps unfortunate choice of word gave that away back in Blood Heat; can't say I'm surprised now, although I am taken aback that the Doctor would need this long to figure it out.  Said character works reasonably well, and has not been over-used to exhaustion elsewhere in Doctor Who, which is often the way with even vaguely promising baddies.  But their motivation is, as would be your first guess, revenge, which hardly seems worth all the fuss.

Returning Baddie #A is in cahoots with other agencies, none of whom you'll find in a Want To See Them Again list.  I mean, was it a rights thing?  Okay, no one's expecting Daleks – although the Cybermen do rock up for a four-page cameo at the start – but pinning a somewhat "important" New Adventure, and by extension its four predecessors on an alien race laughable even to Bernice just does not seem like a great idea.  Some effort is made later on to rescue them from "Remember that crap Doctor Who monster?" spoof territory, adding ideas and background to them as a society, but revealing them amid a protracted tongue-in-cheek reference to 1970s telly puts them at an immediate, fatal disadvantage.  Hey, I love comedy, and I have a fondness for fourth-wall-bothering provided it's done well.  (It's done very well in Conundrum.)  But there's a time and a place, and the big finish to an epic arc would be, at a guess, neither.

No Future just doesn't seem sure what it's about.  There's a sense of very personal investment in the late 1970s, particularly its politics and music, which is quite interesting even if it's a bit lost on me.  There's a recurring idea about anarchy and control which is tied to that.  There's surely a novel in all of the above, focusing on the grim nightmare of people hurting each other en masse without rhyme or reason, and the Doctor struggling to prevent it.  But the actual plot is a somewhat, well, shoddy bunch of stuff about aliens and terrorists and spies – oh my!  – with virtual realities and dream sequences chucked in (if I'm honest, these are a bit of a Cornell staple), all cloaked in a slightly naff fascination with music and panto.  Here is a novel in which the Brigadier, apparently amnesiac or possibly even mind-controlled, orders his men to shoot the Doctor dead.  Which is gritty, right?  And then later on, he openly references Nicholas Courtney's Eyepatch Joke.  (As for the double-whammy of "Chap with Wings, there", I winced.)  When it's inevitably time for the Doctor to explain what's been going on all this time, the supporting characters all say "There's just one thing I don't understand" in unison.  Are we ready, boys and girls?

Despite eyebrow-raising ideas like unprovoked mass violence, and moments of shock and betrayal between familiar characters, No Future often feels like a goofy charity special; familiar faces go through the motions and have a good laugh but never really put their heart into the substance of the thing.  You might say it's not the first fannish Paul Cornell novel, and you'd be right, but the sheer divergence between this and Revelation is like two different authors.

But there are still some solid Cornell-y character beats squirrelled in here, particularly concerning Ace.  All right, I'm sick to death of this "I hate you!" thing she has with the Doctor, and am over the moon that it looks to be resolved here, even though I thought it already was in Lucifer Rising.  (Ace apparently betrayed him, and the Doctor had to unambiguously take a life, putting him on an equal footing with Ace.  For a bit.)  But her journey in No Future is another dark and ultimately satisfying one, even though I'd say too much of it happens off-screen and towards the very end.  She and the Doctor go through some memorably rough patches; it's a pity so much of this is trapped in an ungainly action-adventure mostly about punk rock, but at least the story goes somewhere and, as usual with Cornell, ends on a smile.

Bernice has her moments, although as one very meta exchange tells us:"Don't get a lot to do in this, do I?"  "No," the Doctor agreed, "but you get all the best lines."  Ho ho and all that, but there's a definite sense of disappointment when even Bernice's creator can't find much for her to do.  Yes, she goes undercover, joins a band and does a bit of army stuff, but she's still a very minor part.  I'm still waiting on this series graduating to just the Doctor and Bernice.  Guys, you can do this.

The Doctor falls somewhere between archetypal game-player and rat in a maze, literally running for his life on several (forcedly breathless) occasions.  There's a moment where he witnesses a scene of senseless carnage, which really ought to resonate more than it does, but the plot's going in too many HAVOC-y, Time's-Champion-y directions for that to land.  It's just the wrong story for this sort of paused introspection.

It's like Paul Cornell tried to write something meaningful for Ace and the Doctor, but got a bit merry celebrating the anniversary and added a bunch of old bad guys and references to ventilation shafts.  I just couldn't help missing that sense of investment in the characters, which is still attempted in No Future but never carries much weight.  It's a difficult book to really dislike, with the aforementioned good humour (albeit not consistently good jokes) just about carrying it through.  It's undeniably nice to see the Brigadier and co. under better circumstances than in Blood Heat, and I'm excited to see the series heading off into the relative unknown, telling fully singular stories, untethered by yet another multi-book wait for...  something or other.  Going by No Future, it can easily turn out to be a long wait for not much.


1 comment:

  1. Great review. I *did* read this one when it came out, and I remember it fondly (Yates with pink triangle!), but your review -especially observations like: "No Future often feels like a goofy charity special; familiar faces go through the motions and have a good laugh but never really put their heart into the substance of the thing" , lead me to suspect I'd enjoy it less this time round...