Attack Of The Furry Tentacle Scrotums
Love And War
By Paul Cornell
For me, this one's a big deal. (Also for other fans; it's pretty popular.) I only started reading the New Adventures because I'd heard Big Finish's Love And War adaptation. It had a certain feel that wasn't quite like the McCoy era I knew. It was emotional, like some of those Season 26 stories, but it also did things that the TV series must (or in any case did) shy away from.
The Doctor hurts his companion. Not like in Ghost Light, where he dabbles in her neuroses ostensibly for her own good, or The Curse Of Fenric, where he turns her into a chess piece and once again exposes her to her demons. She forgave him then. In Love And War, Ace is collateral damage in the Doctor's plan. She doesn't take the fall, but someone close to her does. This time it's too much. I had to read the book, delve into the stories that led to this. And of course, see what happens next.
Reading Love And War has been a mixed blessing because of that. Bluntly, I know how the story goes, Big Finish having reproduced it in apparently lavish detail. (Seriously, how did they cram all that into a couple of hours?) But I'm not here to talk about Big Finish.
Paul Cornell's novel is, well. It's quite something. I think I've read enough of these to say, with some confidence, he is one of my favourite New Adventurers. He "gets" the Doctor and Ace in a way that others, aside from maybe Andrew Cartmel, do not. There's an ease to their relationship. Not much needs to be said. And when things are difficult between them – which they often are in Love And War – it is more convincingly articulated than in, say, Nightshade. He'll struggle to tell Ace she should attend a friend's funeral, for instance: "He'd told her that there was a sad event she ought to attend. Of course, he hadn't told her what it was, but that was because he had real trouble with spiky feelings sometimes".
He struggles to tell her a lot of things here. Much of the novel sees him all but wincing with dread at the fork in the road he's all but pushing Ace towards. He tries to spare her, shoving her away from the man she loves by bluntly assuring her he'll hurt her in the end (which is true: he'll die, or worse), or offering an example that really says more about him.
“‘You mean I have to decide between you?’
‘Yes.’ The Doctor wasn't looking at her. ‘My granddaughter did, a long time ago. She'd fallen in love. With an Earthman. Like marrying a mayfly ... You think you've fallen love. One day you'll wake up and he'll be gone.’”
This is true, of course – he knows! – but he could just as easily be talking about himself, and the pain of loneliness which is his greatest fear. In a terrifying piece of (no offence meant) ret-con, Cornell adds ten years to the Third Doctor's last trip home. The TARDIS wandered in the vortex, its frilly-shirt-wearing occupant rotting alone the entire time. It became the Doctor's worst memory, his nightmare place. And no wonder he's thinking about it now. He resents the love of his companions and friends, he views it as a thing that takes them away. Why should he understand? “I left [Susan] on Earth, with her boyfriend. I only saw her once more. She's living out her incarnation, waiting for him to die. Then she'll call for me. Yes... she'll call. And I'll find her again.” It's one of the most heartbreaking stories for the Doctor, an eyes-wide look at his weakness, his absolute need for someone out there in the vortex. (It goes a long way to explaining the end of Nightshade, where he simply decided not to let Ace go with her new boyfriend. Nonetheless, despite a few timely references to Nightshade and to Robin, the betrayal and what it meant are largely ignored, no doubt because Cornell is devoting a novel to the same concept and it's not his fault they're stacked next to each other. (Seriously – why end a book the way Nightshade did if you've got no guarantee the next guy's going to bear it out?)
Unfortunately for the Doctor, Ace is feeling something similar, and not for him. In Nightshade, I found her sudden interest in Robin Yeadon hard to fathom. He wasn't terribly interesting, and they didn't spend much time together. In Love And War, Ace's feelings are at the forefront, and of course she becomes attached to people on the fly. "Being flung across time and space made you into a real party animal. You could either talk to anybody with food or a job or a squat, or you could be shy and dead. And love got to be like that too." It's suddenly annoyingly obvious, to me at least – how else is someone like Ace supposed to meet someone? When's she going to have time for courtship? Little of this really hit home in Big Finish's adaptation (just a brief mention – shutting up now!), leaving me in much the same position with Jan as I was when I came across Robin in Nightshade. On the page, Ace's attraction to Jan makes sense. They are kindred spirits, obviously, his way of life mirroring hers. (Even down to the worship of a "trickster god"!) But he also has that same sense of transience. He counts his ex-lovers among his close friends. He believes in adventure and impulse. Ace believes, rightly, that the two of them could settle down. No doubt the Doctor sees this, as well as Jan's monstery fate, considerably in advance.
There's a poignant inevitability even if you haven't spoiled the plot for yourself. From the autumnal setting (when things end) to a planet of corpses called Heaven, there's a death-worshipping cult, a death-interested collective, a death-feeding parasite, a hulking ball of death and heck, there are great big hints in the dialogue:
“‘What's more important, winning or feeling good about yourself?’
‘Doesn't one always lead to the other, Professor?’
It's a story about endings, partings and – duh! – death. But there's also a compelling plot about monsters, because (as with Timewyrm: Revelation) Cornell is more than able to juggle rich emotional themes and sheer, page-turning excitement. What starts as a deliberately "trivial" way to get Ace's mind off a friend's passing becomes an all-out war against armies of the dead, orchestrated by a nightmare force that is equal parts The Thing and the Borg. Of course the Hoothi allow Cornell to explore that theme of death, but they also pose a terrifying and well-thought-out threat. And there's a refreshing sadness to their victims, as they tend to know their fate. Alternately they explode in a nightmare image of fungus and tentacles and... yeah, that's gonna be playing in my mind-cinema for a while.
When you move away from the emotional heart of the novel, it's difficult not to slide into random, disjointed observations and compliments. The rest of it's all really good, but it's not as important. Still, as was the case with Revelation, there are many dazzling ideas that burn bright for not very long. I love the horrific Planet Of The Spiders ret-con, along with Cornell's imaginative premonition of The Matrix (not the Doctor Who matrix, The Matrix matrix!). Speaking of premonitions, the bit where the Draconians refer to the Doctor as "the oncoming storm"? Paging Mr Davies. Then there's a character weirdly named after Paul Magrs. And oh yeah, there's the casual suggestion that the Sixth Doctor was sacrificed to make way for the Seventh, and the resultant self-loathing created the Valeyard. Cornell didn't need that idea – no doubt it informs later New Adventures – but by god, I sat up when I read it! And then, whoosh, we're past it. I don't know whether to be disappointed or impressed. Love And War has a more relaxed pace than Revelation, there isn't such a frantic crush of thoughts and twists, but Cornell still turns it on a sixpence. It's an assured work.
Amid all this, aka the Doctor and Ace feeling great pain and monsters devouring worlds, Cornell casually changes the New Adventures in a more positive way. Bernice Summerfield, yo! And what to make of her? A guarded, almost panicked sarcasm leaps off the page, not to mention her whims and foibles. It's early days, but there's a lot to enjoy, confidence and obvious flaws winningly mixed. She is unlike most other Doctor Who companions in that she feels less imperilled, more on an equal footing. Also it's interesting how the relationship is born out of the ruins of Ace. ("‘You call me Benny, and I'll call you Doctor. Professor isn't true for either of us.’") They are not equals just because, say, they bring different things to a fight, or because there is some great problem with Benny that the Doctor can fix. (Unless you count her lost father.) There's no ghost of Pygmalion here. I suspect the differences between them (Benny and Ace) will inform the friendship from here on.
Benny signing up is no great burning desire of the Doctor's. It's more of a moot point, no doubt fed by that permanent ache for companions. Benny, meanwhile, sees a great opportunity and takes it, but she knows from the outset what damage the Doctor can do. That's an intriguing and fresh dynamic, and for a novel that is not as optimistic and – will anyone mind? – sweet as Revelation, that Love And War still manages to salvage a note of new life and joy from the wreckage is proof, as far as I'm concerned, that Paul Cornell is a big softie. As am I.
Is anything wrong with it? Well, I haven't seen this many typos since Genesys, although there aren't nearly as many and they're not as bad. It's still distracting amid articulate and interesting prose to hear "The walked up Horsenden Hill", "She hadn't know what to wear" or "Jan shouted, angily." Worse, names might get muddled, as when Roisa drugs Máire to spare her life: "She took one look back, and watched Roisa smile as she fell into some blissful sleep." She watched herself? But typos are merely an inconvenience, and as should be obvious, the last refuge of the critic. It's probably not Paul Cornell's fault, although I'd be that bit happier if they weren't there. I'll bet he would, too.
I find strongly positive reviews harder to write than negative ones, because there's usually a reason bad things fail and you can go after that. When something works, hopefully it does a whole bunch of things well, and I fall into a pattern of just listing them. Well, shucks: Love And War does a whole bunch of things well. It is an end and a beginning, an essential part of the New Adventures and, in many ways, an important piece of Doctor Who. So let me count the ways.