Monday, 10 April 2017

Doctor Who: The Virgin Novels #41 – Warlock by Andrew Cartmel

Doctor Who: The New Adventures
By Andrew Cartmel

Certain authors have reputations among fandom, perhaps for their use of continuity (Gary Russell), their mostly comic work (Gareth Roberts), or for advancing the range and what it can do (Paul Cornell).  If I had to pin something on Andrew Cartmel’s work, besides his obvious depth of interest in the Doctor and Ace (based on his years of experience with the TV show), it would be a kind of vivid unpleasantness.  Warhead was the first New Adventure to really embrace the darker aspects of Doctor Who, pushing the show away from kids and towards the forward-thinking, rebellious young adults Cartmel wanted to encourage to begin with.  It embraced cyberpunk and environmental issues in a well-plotted, exciting story, and I wasn’t really sure why some people had a problem with it; Cartmel’s prose was evocative, his world was engrossing, he understood his characters and the thing moved at a pace.  Yes, there was the odd disturbing dream sequence, certainly a few deaths, and the world he had constructed was utterly downbeat, but it was never excessive.  There was hope and there was victory.

But now I’ve read Warlock, which is presumably the one they were talking about.  You thought Warhead was unpleasant?  Bless.  Warhead is Cartmel delivering Christmas presents in full Santa outfit compared to this.  Warlock is a novel so determined to push boundaries of taste that at one point (if you’ve read it, perhaps you can guess) I wanted to throw the thing across the room.

On some level, it’s my fault.  I’ve decided to read all the New and Missing Adventures, the good, the bad and that other one, to get the full experience. And I will, but that means I will come across books which, in the ordinary run of things, I’d simply stop reading.  I’ve come close a few times due to sheer incomprehensible prose (Time’s Crucible, Strange England), and goodness knows these books can be boring and/or pointless, but – and I accept this is sheer personal taste – Warlock was too miserable for me.  I’m pretty sure some of it was utterly gratuitous as well.

Like Warhead, Warlock is ostensibly a soapbox.  That’s not to say it doesn’t have a plot, or that you should roll your eyes at its message, but it is about the message.  We’ve done the environment; now we’re onto the war on drugs, and clinical trials on animals.  These issues aren’t unrelated, since pharmaceuticals are a major reason for animal testing, but it still felt like Warlock was fighting two slightly random battles at once.

The title refers to a new drug on the market which causes some forms of telepathy.  (It does a few other things as the plot requires.)  You can probably guess why the Doctor is investigating it – and you will have to, as he doesn’t say so until the last 20 pages.  He dispatches Bernice to infiltrate IDEA, an American anti-drugs organisation.  Meanwhile Ace has fallen in with a couple of animal rights activists, Jack and Shell, both habitual warlock users, who are intent on taking down a local animal testing facility.  Some of the tests involve warlock.

The novel hops between the two stories, but only for a short time between Bernice and Ace.  Benny witnesses a drug bust gone awry, carried out in spectacular, if slightly protracted style by Cartmel.  (There’s a moment where the “spirit of warlock”, i.e. a sort of wind that is generated by its users, travels around the room searching for a narc.  If you can forgive me being mindful of the book’s length, this goes on a bit.)  Afterwards she’s only there to gather information on warlock, but IDEA suss her out almost immediately, rendering her useless.  Luckily she escapes back to the Doctor’s HQ, the infamous House On Allen Road.  Incredibly, this no doubt exciting sequence occurs between chapters.  And that’s basically it for Bernice.  Cartmel writes her well, but plot-wise, she’s phoning it in.  After her contribution the IDEA portion of Warlock follows Creed, a burnt-out cop working for them.

Ace has more to do, or at least a higher page-count.  Unwittingly captured by the people running the tests, Ace and her new friends find themselves victims of a warlock drug trial.  Their pets – notably Chick, a cat the Doctor delivered – are swept up as well, so they can be experimented on.  And it’s around here that you can probably guess why I had a hard time with it.  Am I against animal testing?  You bet.  So is Cartmel, or he wouldn’t devote so much energy to the suffering of animals, and the deliberate cruelty of their torturers.  (One of them, Tommy, is inevitably a psychopath.  There are probably a fair few in the trade.)  I’m 100% with the message he’s sending out here, but that doesn’t mean I want to sit through pages and pages of unspeakable things happening to animals.  If anything, I didn’t need it to be spelled out.

Animal cruelty was used as a random, clumsy signifier in St. Anthony’s Fire, whereas at least it’s making a point here, but wading through it is no easier for that.  It’s just morbid to linger on it, but it ought to at least warrant some poetic justice for the bad guys.  And yet, while Tommy and his equally awful sister do get offed, it’s curiously quick and/or off-screen.  Like Bernice’s escape from New York, it’s odd that the book chooses to skip its heroism and (however violent) closure, leaving its misery largely untouched.

To redress the balance, Cartmel’s prose is once again excellent and evocative.  He even shifts to the animals’ perspective, firstly to heighten the emotion of murdering them, and secondly to lay a bit of groundwork for one of warlock’s unexpected side-effects: Ace and co. escape their confines by transferring their minds to the animals.  Which would be a great, if somewhat twee way for the novel to go, if the animals then escaped.  Surprise, it’s no help at all.  One by one, it’s torture time, just the same as if they were being vivisected themselves.  Offing Tommy only makes it worse.

This is one of the reasons I got so mad at the book: it is utterly miserable, mixed with a sense of complete hopelessness.  It’s everywhere.  Bernice is off to investigate warlock with the Americans?  They will suss her out and assume she’s a traitor.  Ace is nipping off to help some new friends?  They will all be captured, including the pets, and quite possibly all of the above will die.  Vincent and Justine, characters from Warhead, come looking for the Doctor for help?  They’ll be captured by IDEA.  Justine goes on the run afterwards?  Oh, she’ll get randomly scooped up by a prostitution ring.  Why not?  And hey, since she’s pregnant, let’s have a crime boss immediately try to kill her baby.  Creed rescues her, so naturally, cherry on the top, she’ll be so grateful that she’ll chuck her marriage away on the spur of the moment and shag him.  Any more for any more?  (Since you ask, there’s a rape back-story in there, and yep, Chick gets killed.  That one seems inevitable given the book’s subject matter and the fact that they introduce Chick at all, but even so, god damn it.)

I read Warlock pretty quickly, and Andrew Cartmel’s rich writing is largely the reason for that, painting the emotions and back-stories of everyone here in a way that adds to the story.  But the main thrust of it for me was just trying to power through the really horrible stuff.  Since there is no let up, I read more than half of it in a day.  I just wanted it done.

Cartmel does have some interesting and worthwhile things to say.  I’m not convinced the War On Drugs stuff is exactly subtle: the drug dealers are violent psychopaths, whereas IDEA make no bones about their moral greyness and/or hiring of violent nutters.  Even the police hate them, and there’s a moment near the end where one of their key figures owns up to the whole thing just being a smokescreen to keep drugs illegal; it’s as close as the novel gets to just being a blog post, if it weren’t for said villain having his own Machiavellian reasons for IDEA.  (The drug itself is thoughtfully likened to a tree or a stream – alive, but not culpable.)  Similarly, the characters take down the invalidity of animal testing with aplomb: since an animal’s reactions can only ever give a suggestion of human behaviour, you’re basically torturing and killing them for a bunch of guesswork.  But whereas Warhead tied its ideas about the environment, and mankind’s complicity in its decline to a tight story, Warlock is a lot woollier in its plot work, progressing the story of Ace inches at a time, and keeping important stuff (like what warlock is, or who the shadowy Mrs Woodcott is) to the last minute.  Generous helpings of peril keep it moving, but when you stand back from it there isn't much actual progression in there.

Another obvious comparison to Warhead is the Doctor.  Once again he’s a shadowy figure that causes (sometimes bad) things to happen to achieve results.  The difference is that he’s barely in Warlock.  You might say similar of Warhead, but he was pulling the strings in the previous novel, with all of Ace’s actions coming from him.  His absence suggested influence, whereas he spends fully half of Warlock tinkering with computers at the house on Allen Road, instead of actively helping anybody.  If he’d bothered to help Shell and Jack, well, their story might have gone differently, and he’s got no idea where Ace has gone, just a sinking feeling when she’s been gone for a while.  I won’t know until the next novel, but perhaps this is all character development: his negligence leads her and others to a horrific ordeal, and it’s not her first.  But there’s no evidence of any ill feeling here, what with the time allotted, and he’s simply not in the book enough for it to feel like a big deal is being made.  The Doctor just ducks out of the narrative until it finds a use for him.  It’s a bit disappointing coming from Cartmel, who is justly thought to have a good understanding of these characters and their relationship.

What with keeping the truth about warlock (let me guess, it’s alien?) to a last-minute minimum, and keeping the Doctor and his companions apart, and putting quite a lot of the story on Creed and latterly Justine, I wondered if Warlock was a little too divorced from Doctor Who altogether.  Even with direct (and I admit, pretty neat) ties to a previous novel, and with the Doctor ultimately doing what he’s doing to right a wrong, it feels more like Andrew Cartmel’s Misery Soapbox Drama than actual Doctor Who.  There are still things to like about it, such as those Cartmellian action sequences that really put you in the middle of them, the depth of justifiable rage and argument in his views, and the way he subverts things like pace, so that the Doctor and co. have been staying at Allen Road for a year when we meet them, and Bernice’s drug bust is in full swing before we even know about her joining IDEA.  I’m still not sure the pace works, what with something having to give and that often being the bit I wanted to see.  On the whole, I don’t know why the book is this long.

I’m a bit torn over it.  Warlock is a well-written novel and it makes some good points.  It also tries much too hard to rub the reader’s face in it, and I have to object to that.  It’s not automatically a bad thing if your story is bleak and downbeat, or if bad things happen in it.  Certainly it adds pathos.  Nonetheless, I reserve the right to feel that when investing this much effort in a book, I shouldn’t feel like crap afterwards.



  1. Very insightful review of this disturbing novel.

    By now I have read thirty four different New Adventures, a long journey through many different styles and stories since Timewyrm: Genesis. I am sure that I will have to go back and reread many of these since my impressions are becoming quite confused. I say all this because I remember hating Andrew Cartmell's earlier novel "Warhead," which read so contrary to normal Whovian tales, more like a contemporary thriller. This novel is equally contrary to any expectations one might have of a novel about Doctor Who, but for some reason it was very interesting and absorbing. I read it in less than a day, which is fast for me.

    The style of prose and dialogue is very naturalistic, descriptively clear but narratively compelling. The chapters portraying Ace, Benny and the Doctor having breakfast or fiddling with broken bits of old technology are homey and wonderful: I could have spent an entire book just reading about coffee, cats and old television sets. There is a great variety of scenes in this book: petty criminals doing business; horrific animal torture; supernatural psionic explosions; trippy extended hallucinations; dog and cat's eye view of things; tense action sequences of capture, horrible threats and rescue (or tragically, not); and an ultimate scene of confrontation and revelation: all of these various scenes are well written enough to hold the attention.

    At the same time there are some serious problems. The Doctor is instrumental in the solution of the mystery and the eventual rescue of most of our heroes, but he appears in too few scenes: I want more of his wit and brilliance in a Doctor Who novel. Ace and Benny likewise have strong roles and scenes, but not enough. The secondary characters are very well drawn and compelling, but could use some editing down. Furthermore, the extremely cruel violence (including threatened and reported rape) and psychological horror are too grim for Doctor Who, in my opinion. However there were enough scenes of real beauty to get me through all that.

    Another big problem is that Cartmel has messages about animal rights and the drug war which he makes too abundantly and forcefully clear. As another reviewer pointed out, his heavy handed portrayal of these issues only convinces me that animals should be treated (farmed, tested and eaten) with as little needless cruelty as possible; and that a corrupt and violent police force makes a poor enforcers of our laws. Nonetheless, the characters present valid points of view and speak and act convincingly, so I actually forgive the author for all his enthusiasm.

    The ending is also a bit weird. After 280 pages of contemporary thriller, the plots takes a very Whovian twist (which tries unsuccessfully to explain some of the weirder previous events.)

    Addendum: I often read complaints about some of the novels (including this one) in which the Doctor seems terribly ineffectual. However I just got done watching William Hartnell in "The Mythmakers," in which the Doctor's main accomplishment is escaping from Odysseus in the Tardis with a wounded Stephen and minus Vicki. And by the way he fulfils the preordained task of building the Trojan horse. I think there has always been a certain type of Doctor Who story, wherein the Doctor is a spectator to great and terrible events.

    1. Neat review, Tallifer; I agree, obvs!

      On a slightly unrelated note, the Target novelisation (via the audiobook, read by Stephen Thorne) is some of the best Who-related stuff out there. I'm absolutely potty about that audio range, some real corker combinations of reader and story.