Saturday, 1 October 2016

Doctor Who: The Virgin Novels #8 – Nightshade by Mark Gatiss

Doctor Who: The New Adventures
By Mark Gatiss

Mark Gatiss is one of those New Who writers you can learn to predict.  He will, in all likelihood, trot out something you've seen before, with a humble reverence that is quite sweet but doesn't add very much.  Robot Of Sherwood repeats a lot of sci-fi tropes (not to mention Maid Marian gags); Cold War does Alien-meets-Dalek on a submarine; Victory Of The Daleks pluckily references Power Of The Daleks, then runs out of steam after twenty minutes.  He's on stronger ground when he embraces the other of his poles, the macabre, usually defined by Victoriana.  His biggest hits are unsurprisingly The Unquiet Dead and The Crimson Horror: scary, creepy and a bit funny, they have more in common with his own imagination than the annals of Doctor Who, etc.  So in other words, he often lets nostalgia get the better of him.  Which is a little ironic given the subject of his New Adventures novel, Nightshade: nostalgia can kill, so don't look back.  Too ruddy true, Mark.

Nonetheless, for a writer obviously intrigued by the halcyon glow of the past, and to a lesser extent whether it lies, killer nostalgia is a canny idea.  Gatiss gets the most out of it, and then some.  You may notice that Nightshade has an enormous supporting cast, and there's a good reason for that: body count.  The novel quickly reveals its trump card, a nostalgic remembrance followed by ghostly apparition followed by death, and repeats it and repeats it and repeats it.  The Doctor, curiously ineffective and clueless, is unable to prevent a long list of deaths.  It's never exactly monotonous – restlessly bouncing between characters and situations every couple of pages, the novel bounds along like you're binge watching all four episodes of a classic serial – but it is very obviously the same gag on repeat.

Fortunately amid the sheer repetition, Gatiss finds some absolutely killer variations on his theme.  We have a monastery full of elderly people all creating their "ghosts" at once; Edmund Trevithick, the Quatermass-ish television star heroically battling one of his old monsters in a lift; and the Doctor meeting what appears to be an old friend, which promises to be a real coup if they reproduce it in the Big Finish play.  (Quick glance at the cast-list: they did.)

Conversely, some trips down memory lane are inevitable and obvious.  The aforementioned "Remember; see a ghost; get killed" rinse cycle becomes predictable, especially when no one's doing anything to stop it.  But more annoyingly, scarcely a book goes by without Ace remembering specific events from Season 25 and 26, not to mention her dratted mother.  Sure enough we get Ghost Light and Remembrance refs in this, plus Mummy Ace and her associated baggage.  It might suit Nightshade to do it all over again, but in her case it just doesn't pack a punch any more.  Even her heroic "I don't believe in you!" moment feels derivative of The Curse Of Fenric.

I wonder if I'm becoming difficult to please, re Ace. I love character continuity, but specific episode continuity gets boring fast.  In her case, the two are annoyingly synonymous.  She's always looking back in order to inform her present.  But at least there are nods to the Timewyrm books, suggesting that yes, her life does continue beyond 1989.  And hey, she's leaving soon (spoilers!), so maybe it's a necessary step to blow out the past before embracing the future.  (She's certainly trying to do the latter, with her would-be boyfriend Robin.)  Again, I thought this was more or less achieved in Timewyrm: Revelation, but then I thought the Doctor got over the Time War in The Parting Of The Ways, so what do I know?

The plot is surprisingly light, or rather very little seems to be achieved over the course of the book.  The ravenous force that is killing Crook Marsham, called The Sentience for want of a real name, ploughs through bodies with abandon.  The Doctor, Ace and a few others zip from location to location without really learning anything.  (A hefty flashback to the Civil War does clue them in a bit, but it doesn't help until the very end.)  Probably more important is the scattered character development, but I'm not sure how much it really achieves.  All the minor (doomed) characters have murky pasts for The Sentience to prey on; Gatiss flexes his character muscles over and over to that end, but since they're all destined to be bumped off anyway, it's oddly futile.  (Also, the definition of "nostalgia" quickly becomes tenuous.  The abbot sees Jesus instead of a departed loved one; Doctoe Who-esque TV star Trevithick sees old monsters trying to kill him.)  The only characterisation that can actually stick is in the main two, and that's a mixed bag.

The Doctor is feeling "a profound dissatisfaction and loneliness, a yearning to belong," which is a little on the random side, isn't it?  He seems crabby and irritable about his inability to stop interfering, he this time doesn't do much towards that end, besides a visit to a monastery.  One could argue his general inability to sort anything out is deliberate, but I'm not sure looking on while people get killed is quite what he had in mind.

He suggests packing it all in, going back to Gallifrey and applying his skills at home.  (And speaking of his home turf, there is a brief flashback to an earlier Doctor on the day he left – that's a past Doctor in four books out of eight, score-keepers!)  It's inevitably hard to take that seriously in what are, as we all know, the ongoing adventures of Doctor Who.  Added to which, the Doctor felt considerably more at home in the country village of the previous book (incidentally, what unfortunate juxtaposition – two "sleepy British villages" in a row).  If he was going to feel a yearning to settle down or change his ways, it might as well have been there, right?  Especially with the TARDIS on the fritz.  But no.  With its odd, irritable Doctor ringing the changes seemingly out of nowhere, Nightshade does not entirely convince.

Meanwhile, Ace is also considering settling down, which is incredible timing as the Doctor suspects she'll do just that, and then she apparently falls in love with the first young man she sees!  It's difficult to invest in Ace-and-Robin for a number of reasons – not least the nagging foreknowledge that she'll go through similar motions over somebody else in the very next book (spoilers?) – but frankly, I never saw much in him as a character, or anything that explained Ace's determination to go with him.  She's known him for a day or two.  He's a young man and he's nice enough.  Aside from the excitement of meeting anyone in her constant whirlwind of travel, it's tough to feel cut up when they are forcibly parted at the end.  Even more so when the Doctor's apparent decision to do so comes without explanation or pay-off.  I'm in an odd position of knowing the rough plot of Love And War from its Big Finish counterpart, and I certainly don't recall any adherence to this; I hope Paul Cornell does something with it.  (I only question it because Witch Mark wasn't even finished when it came out, and certain New Adventures character beats – including a similar failed romance between Ace and Raphael in Timewyrm:Apocalypse – seemed to happen without wider consequences.)

It may repeat itself too often, and its character arcs may not convince, but Nightshade still makes good thematic meat out of nostalgia.  The Doctor and Ace react to it and both learn to reject the past.  Where they go from there is annoyingly unclear, though.  I wonder if Nightshade is better enjoyed as a simple horror treat than anything deeply emotional.  Gatiss's ghostly rinse cycle, with its eerie mix of yearning and monstrous hunger, feels like a solid Stephen King idea, and he marries it to Classic Doctor Who while he's at it, with Trevithick's scuttling monsters, a supernatural barrier around an old village, and good old nostalgia for a TV show that gave folks the willies.  It could be argued as typically familiar Mark Gatiss fare, but knowingly so, and probably better for it.


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