1991 was the year of Doctor Who novels. Virgin Publishing had purchased Target books a few years earlier, which Doctor Who fans remember for the long line of excellent novelisations which we had instead of videos back in the day. Editor Peter Darvill-Evans had tried to get the license for Virgin to publish original Doctor Who tie-in novels, but this was refused until the cancellation of the show was official.
So in 1991 a mini-series of four linked novels was released to test the market. The Timewyrm series: Genesys, Exodus, Apocalypse and Revelation were written by John Peel, Terrance Dicks, Nigel Robinson and debut author Paul Cornell.
I ate these books up with a spoon when they came out. I was thirteen, I had pocket money (which I was supposed to spend on clothes, sorry Mum!) and I wanted more Ace and the Seventh Doctor. With these books, I got my wish. I remember very clearly that I loved Genesys and Exodus, was ‘meh’ about Apocalypse, and was confused, disorientated and slightly alienated by the much weirder and more experimental Revelation, which broke the mould from a literary point of view and is the one of the four that other fans tend to get most excited about.
Later on, as the New Adventures (and Ace in particular) got a lot darker, angstier and more WEIRD, I did rather blame Paul Cornell for starting them all off on that particular track. Sorry, Paul. I’m pretty sure I forgave you once Bernice Summerfield turned up.
So. Timewyrm: Genesys. The first of a series of books that would define Doctor Who for the next five years, and a medium that would define Doctor Who for more than a decade. Does it stand up to a re-read, what with all those things about feminism I’ve learned over the last 21 years? LET’S FIND OUT.
Ace, at least, comes across fairly clearly and believably as a character – though I note that she is not only naked in the first scene she appears in, but also spends time checking herself out in the mirror.
The Doctor, however, is a bit of a dick – and I don’t mean the dark and manipulative aspect which I am fine with as part of the ongoing Seventh Doctor portrayal. He’s actually surprisingly cruel to Ace in a way he never was in the TV show – it feels far more like the Six-Peri dynamic rather than the sweet, fatherly friendship that the Doctor and Ace display in seasons 25 and 26. Not only does he accidentally erase her memories at the beginning of the book, but when he realises what he has done he is entirely callous about it, and rude in the face of her extreme vulnerability.
Later, when they are in the city, Ace confides in him that she is uncomfortable with the two of them sharing a room with the lusty, violent and arrogant hero-king Gilgamesh, and the Doctor is entirely unconcerned, suggesting that if she’s so worried “about her virtue” then she’s free to walk back to the TARDIS alone. Despite there being wild lions about. He then spends the rest of the book blithely and repeatedly leaving Ace alone in uncomfortable situations with Gilgamesh, often when the hero-king is drunk.
Yep. He’s a DICK.
The little evidence that the Doctor has any fondness at all for Ace comes from his internal thoughts, most of the rest of which are wrapped up in continuity references to previous stories. It’s interesting, though, because I seem to recall ‘stay out of the Doctor’s head’ being a key element of those much-publicised writers guidelines for the New Adventures.
As the book continues, further dickishness emerges. When he and some of their new friends are sneaking into the temple, it’s not only the Doctor’s suggestion that former priestess En-Gula bares her breasts in order to be ‘undercover’ as the sacred prostitute she used to be, but he thinks some very uncharitable things about the haughty princess Ninani when she refuses to do the same.
Don’t let the fact that it might save all our lives influence you, the Doctor thought.
Also, when the Doctor and Ace leave Mesopotamia at the end of the story, and she has a fleeting moment of satisfaction at seeing peace brokered between Gilgamesh and the king, and the happy position in which they are leaving their friends, the Doctor punctures this by using his knowledge of history to point out all the bad things that are going to happen to nearly everyone after the TARDIS leaves.
Despite its many problems, I can see why I liked the book so much in my teens. It’s full of women with agency, from the villain herself (an alien scientist who has crash-landed in Mesopotamia and taken on the role of Ishtar) to the plucky princess Ninani who is determined to save her father and city from the evil goddess, and her new friend En-Gula the sacred prostitute, who is willing to help out and play sidekick but does also have a tendency to randomly proposition people because she’s used to that being her only social value. Admittedly Ninani and En-Gula are largely forgotten after a few chapters and become less interesting later than they appeared to be at the beginning of the narrative, but as a teenage reader, I didn’t notice that part.
Ace gets some pretty good speeches, Doctor-style, about why she enjoys their life together. She also suggests that maybe the Doctor is trying not to get too attached to her because he knows she will leave him in the end… possibly an excuse for his mean behaviour? But not much of one.
The story is also packed with continuity references, which was pretty appealing to my thirteen year old fannish self. Not only do Ace and the Doctor think back to past adventures a lot, but there are a couple of seriously cheesy “cameo” appearances – at the beginning, the Fourth Doctor appears, just after he has been playing with the Matrix in The Invasion of Time, to warn his future self of a vision he had of ‘the Timewyrm’ before it fades from his memory. Later, in the denouement, the Doctor admits that one of his former selves has greater scientific knowledge and abilities than himself, and induces the Third Doctor to come and inhabit his brain for a little while, describing the process “like a different faces of a multi-coloured cube.”
Now, that would be a cheap way to bring them all back for the anniversary. Matt Smith doing early Doctor impersonations, hmm?
Oh, AND the TARDIS communicates danger by replaying clips from old episodes of former companions warning the Doctor, with a cool effect of the long-dead Katarina repeating the word ‘temple’ over and over again. It’s a CLUE!
Also the villain is pretty awesome. She’s like – imagine if a cybernetic version of the Rani escaped, set herself up as a goddess on a primitive planet, ate brains, stole bodies and even – DUN DUN DUHHHHN – invaded the TARDIS computers.
The climax of the book (and yes I am going to spoil it, Doctor Who Book Club Podcast style, because it’s 20 years old and like other New Adventures books, almost impossible to get hold of, but do look away now if this is a problem for you) is pretty magnificent, with the Doctor luring a computer virus version of Ishtar into the TARDIS to save the world from a nasty planet-killing bomb, and then realising too late that she is not the sort of person you want tangled up in your telepathic circuits.
Even then he has a clever response – too clever – pulling a Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby scenario to send virus-Ishtar to the circuits in the secondary control room, only to jettison that section of the TARDIS (sob!), banishing her to the vortex.
Which, of course, doesn’t kill her as expected, but allows her colossal time travel powers, and creates the Timewyrm, the villain we had been told to expect not only throughout this book, but linking the sequels in this mini-series of novels. Bad Doctor. No biscuit for you.
Now the Doctor and Ace have to face what they (well, he) have unleashed on the world… in the sequel! (no, I’m not going to read the sequel)
While the series was enough of a critical and commercial success to continue, the idea of a linking mini-series was soon dropped (after the follow up trilogy called Cat’s Cradle) and the book series continued monthly through the first half of the nineties. Often cited as an example of how media tie-in books can achieve greatness if allowed to create and build on their own canon (and if there isn’t a pesky current TV show around to get in the way), and ALSO as an example of how Doctor Who turns into something completely different if you allow it to get too dark and serious, the books served as a training ground for a new generation of Doctor Who writers and readers.
The first thing to go was any concession to a family audience – these books were written for adults, and much like Torchwood was criticised for more than a decade later, that sometimes meant dark, interesting and mature science fiction stories, and sometimes meant a bunch of sex, drugs and swearing stuck awkwardly into the text… Like Torchwood, though, this new freedom expanded the possibilities of the types of stories that could be told in a Doctor Who universe.
I started out reading the books compulsively, then sporadically, and later dipped in and out of them, choosing only the books by favourite writers or with particularly intriguing concepts. My favourites included Conundrum by Steve Lyons, Nightshade by Mark Gatiss, Human Nature and Happy Endings by Paul Cornell (SEE I FORGAVE HIM) and just about anything by Kate Orman – but particularly Return of the Living Dad and The Room With No Doors.
And so a long-running family adventure time travel TV show became a successful range of dark, weird science fiction books for grown ups… in which anything, absolutely anything, was possible.