For The Sake Of An Angel (Love and War)

(17 comments)

I’ll Explain Later

We have skipped both Cat’s Cradle: Witch Mark and Nightshade. The former wraps up the Cat’s Cradle trilogy by having the Doctor acquire some needed “organic material” from a story that is otherwise about getting fairies and unicorns into Doctor Who. The latter is Mark Gatiss’s debut novel, and is quite well-regarded, but the consensus was that I could skip it and so I did. For those keeping track at home, we are now at two writers who made writing debuts in the New Adventures range and who then went on to write for the television series. Next Friday Gareth Roberts will make it three.

Love and War is the ninth New Adventure, and the first by a returning author, namely Paul Cornell. It features the temporary departure of Ace, as she storms out of the TARDIS, enraged at the Doctor for deliberately sacrificing the life of her lover to stop the bad guys (the Hoothi, a race of manipulative fungus). It also features the debut of Bernice “Benny” Summerfield, the New Adventures’ signature companion. It is phenomenally well-regarded, coming in as the ninth-best New Adventure on Shannon Sullivan’s rankings, with a rating of 79.4%. I, Who calls it “a paradigm shift” that is “another triumph for author Paul Cornell.” Reviews at the time were similarly enthusiastic, with Garry Russell proclaiming  it “probably the most mature and intelligent o the run so far.” It is sufficiently beloved that Big Finish are adapting it into an audio play in October, the first time that a novel has been adapted to audio without also being changed to remove the Doctor. DWRG summary. Whoniverse Discontinuity Guide entry.

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It’s October of 1992. The Shamen are at number one with “Ebeneezer Goode,” lasting two weeks before Tasmin Archer unseats them with “Sleeping Satellite.” Two weeks later Boyz II Men take number one with “End of the Road.” Lionel Richie, Prince, and Bob Marley and the Wailers also chart, along with Madonna's “Erotica.” In albums, R.E.M. do quite well for themselves with Automatic for the People, and rightly so. A fun fact - the two highest-charting R.E.M. singles in the UK are the utterly uninteresting “The Great Beyond” and the brilliant but unheralded “E-Bow the Letter,” both from well after their commercial peak in the US.

Since Warhead, Lindy Chamberlain is finally acquitted for murder on the grounds that dingoes did, in fact, eat her baby. This is actually mildly relevant to Doctor Who, as four years earlier a film of this case, Evil Angels, was produced by Verity Lambert’s film company Cinema Verity. Yitzhak Rabin became Prime Minister of Israel. Hurricane Andrew thrashed Florida, and Black Wednesday took place as the UK was forced to withdraw the pound sterling from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism, which is about it for the Tory government, which had the fortune of having just won an election and thus getting to hang on for five years despite nobody liking them anymore.

While in October… erm… you’ve got the Sinéad O’Connor pope photo ripping thing. The Pope also admits that the whole Galileo thing had gone poorly.  Oh, and Yoshihiro Hattori getting shot and killed for knocking on the wrong door in Louisana, which is the sort of thing that happens there.   His killer is acquitted after claiming he thought Hattori, who was dressed in a tuxedo and rang the doorbell, was trying to rob the house, which is also the sort of thing that happens there.

On to literature, and Paul Cornell’s Love and War. As I’ve already noted, this book is widely beloved, and rightly so. It’s an outright triumph. I Who makes much of its supposed paradigm shift, but I want to resist that at least partially. First of all, it’s largely less radical than Timewyrm: Revelation. It does a lot, and is a better book, but it’s not the massive alteration to the conception of the Doctor and to how Doctor Who works that Cornell’s first book was.

Rather, Love and War serves to take a certain approach to Doctor Who to its limit. And in some ways it’s impressive how early in the books this happens. The New Adventures are famed for their use of an ultra-manipulative Doctor, but if we’re being honest, this is it. This is as far as the “the Doctor is a manipulative bastard” concept can go. No matter what you do, you’re never going to substantively top the Doctor consciously and deliberately sacrificing Ace’s lover. There’s never going to be a moment in terms of the Doctor’s manipulations as crushing and horrifying as the Doctor gently touching Ace’s cheek and reassuring her that she won’t have to choose between Jan and him, knowing full well that she’ll misunderstand his promise. That’s as extreme as that approach can go. That’s not to say that the manipulative Doctor well dries up here - it doesn’t. But this marks the moment where we see how deep that rabbit hole extends.

Indeed, for all that Love and War is seen as a definitive moment in Virgin’s developing of the series, it is in many more ways a careful policing of the boundaries. Its point is very often to say “this is as far as Doctor Who can go while remaining Doctor Who.” It’s difficult to overstate how important this was to the line - indeed, it’s every bit as important as the radical opening up of the series offered by Timewyrm: Revelation. Unbound by the pressures of a broad and general audience and the restrictions of television, it would be possible and indeed easy for the New Adventures to spiral off into something that’s not really recognizable as Doctor Who anymore. Indeed, this is in many ways exactly what happens to the BBC’s Eighth Doctor Adventures line. Too far down the manipulative Doctor road and you start to lose what makes the Doctor the Doctor - a point Cornell already raised in the implicit relationship between the Fifth and Seventh Doctors in Timewyrm: Revelation.

The most basic tool Love and War uses to accomplish this is to be unapologetically inspired by Sandman. Much of the New Adventures’ approach and aesthetic is borrowed from Sandman, but this is in many ways the most blatant. It’s not just the continuing anthropomorphizing of Death and Time, though those are fairly obvious references. It’s things like Cornell’s use of “Puterspace,” which is on the one hand another instance of the cyberpunk influence on Doctor Who. But its actual mechanics are miles from cyberpunk. Puterspace is nothing so much as a version of Gaiman’s Dreaming, where one wanders about and meets gods. It’s a purely religious concept, connected to science fiction through the standard trappings of neck ports, but unquestionably and undoubtedly working according to a logic of modern fantasy.

This allows Love and War to frame itself in a Gaimanesque way, taking place within the iconography of the series, but in a way that treats it as iconography, not as a material history. The villains, the Hoothi, come from an off-hand line in The Brain of Morbius. (“No ship can approach Karn without detection. Even the silent gas dirigibles of the Hoothi are felt in our bones while still a million miles distant.”) This is revealing. It’s important, for a book such as this, to have a villain that comes from the series’ past, but this is not a villain that gestures at a network of facts and plot points. Prior to Love and War all the Hoothi consisted of was a three-word phrase, “silent gas dirigibles,” that is on the one hand evocative and on the other hand just another Robert Holmes fart joke. It’s just a bit of textual driftwood from the series' past.

More substantively referenced is Terrance Dicks’s old and hoary maxim that the Doctor is “never cruel or cowardly,” originally, so far as I can tell, from the 1972 Making of Doctor Who book, but more broadly one of the general and standard descriptions of the Doctor. After everything has happened, the Doctor finds a note to himself on the TARDIS console, using the exact phrase, which prompts a conversation with Benny about it and his nature (including a bit that is a fairly straightforward antecedent of the “I had to give them a choice” bit of The Poison Sky in which the Doctor says that he had to confront the Hoothi personally before he destroyed them). Obviously we have a metafictional moment here, as the phrase comes not from within Doctor Who but from its paratext. But more crucially, it frames the story as doing exactly the Sandman thing. It’s already an effective story structurally - the Doctor betrays Ace to save billions of lives. That’s already a damn good hook. But Cornell takes it further, making it a story about how the Doctor who does that does or doesn’t fit in with the existing rules of the story. It’s not just a story about the Doctor betraying Ace, it’s a story about whether the Doctor can do that and still remain the Doctor and within the realm of what constitutes a Doctor Who story.

The larger brilliance of the book comes from its handling of Ace. On the one hand, the book’s premise requires that Ace be “mature,” by which I really just mean she has sex. Cornell wisely decides against writing an “Ace loses her virginity” story, establishing that she had some meaningless flings back on Iceworld, and keeping the book from having an unpleasant anti-sex undertone. But it also gets at a fundamental complexity of Ace’s character. On the one hand, she is designed to be an urban teenager. On the other, she’s always been a children’s television character as opposed to a socially realist portrayal of working class youth in late-80s Britain. This was never a flaw in the series, and it’s not a flaw here, but there is a tension that has to be worked with. By backdating Ace’s sexuality to Dragonfire Cornell buys himself something important - the ability to make Ace sexually active without abandoning her children’s television nature.

After all, nobody who has met a sixteen-year-old girl is going to seriously believe that if you randomly swept her across the universe and deposited her on an alien world populated by various lowlifes and con artists that she is not going to have sex with some of them. Whether one wants to make that explicit or not is one thing, and for obvious reasons the TV series didn’t touch it with a ten foot pole. But let’s be clear - the series never asked the question of whether Ace was sexually active. It certainly didn’t ever say she wasn’t. And Cornell is wise to realize that opening the door to that in Ace’s present really ought to come with a consideration of her past.

But this also means that Ace has been sexually active even in the various stories we’ve seen her as a children’s television heroine in. And this allows Cornell the clever trick of having Ace continue to act and think like a child even as she’s sexually active. Cornell continues to be deft about portraying Ace’s interiority, and makes it clear that she’s immature and foolish in her relationship with Jan. To quote one conversation between Ace and Benny, “‘Typical,’ Ace nodded. ‘But me and Jan are gonna be okay. We’re different.’ ‘That’s what they all say.’ Ace shook her head. She didn’t want to hear that.” She consistently reads as a children’s television character in over her head, being flooded with emotions and circumstances she’s simply not made to handle.

This sets up another brilliant trick for Cornell: he takes the immaturity of Ace’s relationship with Jan and applies it equally to her relationship with the Doctor. She’s no more mature in how she considers him than she is in how she considers Jan, treating their relationship as a big, mythic thing that works not according to any interpersonal logic but according to narrative logic. At one point, she declares that “if he’s fighting something he can’t handle, if he’s surrounded by enemies, then I have to be there. Always. That’s the deal.” What Cornell is doing, broadly speaking, is pushing this logic to its breaking point. Ace and the Doctor have a fairy tale relationship, and Cornell is putting that relationship in a situation seemingly too dark and too fraught for it to function.

Which would all be painfully deconstructive and nihilistic, except that Cornell finds an escape hatch. He pushes the fairy tale logic of the Doctor and Ace to its absolute limit, but not past it. In the end, the story does reaffirm the essential goodness of the Doctor. It sides with the Doctor. But it does so from a position other than straightforward, childlike adoration. The key comes in what is probably the novel’s most enduring contribution to Doctor Who’s larger mythos, and a spectacular execution of the Gaimanesque “tell-don’t-show” trick, the Doctor’s boast that he’s “what monsters have nightmares about!”

Let’s pause and look at this line for a moment, as it’s central to what Cornell is doing. On the one hand, it is obviously a triumphant line. But on the other, there is something unnerving about it. It frames the Doctor as something terrifying, albeit a terror in the sense of the sublime. On the one hand the Doctor is a force that protects children and saves the day. But equally, he does it by being even scarier than the monsters. This is also what the revelation of the Third Doctor’s agonizing death in the TARDIS of radiation sickness is about. Much like Ace’s sexuality, it makes sense in the context of the story, but is largely glossed over and unexplored, a terrifying detail hidden beneath our childhood memories.

All of the fairy tale love of the hero is preserved in this conception, but it’s accompanied by something else - a realization that the fairy-tale hero is absolutely terrifying. Similarly, consider the novel’s claim that the Doctor needs a companion for the same reason that Puff the Magic Dragon needs Little Jackie Paper to be brave. All well and good, but elided in this is the fact that the Doctor is a fucking dragon.

And this is the limit of the approach. You can push Doctor Who as far as you want so long as that essential connection to its fairy-tale nature remains. At the end of the day, the resonance of its first image still defines it - the TARDIS is a magic box and a portal out of the mundane world and into a fantastic one. This has always been scary; fear has always made companions of us all. And that tension between the terror and the splendor of what the Doctor represents is the thread that keeps the series functional as the Doctor is pushed to more and more extreme positions.

And so in that regard, unlike Timewyrm: Revelation, Love and War is really a novel about showing where the approach breaks down. It pushes Doctor Who far enough that a single thread still grounds it to what it is, and then uses that thread to climb down from its own extremity. This is not the end of the idea of the manipulative Doctor who pushes ethical limits. It’s a sketch of the border, and there’s still much room to fill in. The book also makes one more key move that allows this sketching in to take place and have weight: it overthrows the status quo. Eighteen months into the New Adventures, Virgin has finally moved to where its stories are no longer dealing with the same TARDIS crew as Survival.

Even if the departure of Ace was announced as temporary at the time, the fact that she does leave and a new companion enters is a major statement of intent for Virgin. They’ve claimed something they didn’t really have before: the right to permanently change Doctor Who. They’ve built to it, most obviously in the revelations of Time’s Crucible, but this is the first time they’ve gone ahead and openly advanced Doctor Who into a new era. This is a big deal. Especially because it wasn’t necessary yet. We’re only nine books into the series. Shaking up the TARDIS crew is still brave, not a desperate attempt to freshen things up. It’s a dramatic claim that the New Adventures are Doctor Who now, not just an imitation of what was last going on when it was on television.

In short, Love and War represents a significant trade-off within the New Adventures. Cornell gives up the ability to push Doctor Who indefinitely in a conceptual sense in favor of being able to have genuine consequences for any and all of the characters. And in doing so the scope of the New Adventures becomes clear. This era has its concept installed, and can now begin the work of just being an era of Doctor Who. After eight books of trying to figure out what it means to continue Doctor Who in a series of novels, we’re now off to the races.

Comments

peeeeeeet 5 years, 3 months ago

Fierce writeup. It's also worth noting, given your recent thoughts on the importance of ordinary people in these types of stories, that the guest cast here are probably the best so far in the NAs; Christopher, Roisa, Maire, Jan, Julian and even Phaedrus all hold their own, which is no mean feat when Benny Summerfield just walked onstage. Cornell wins his argument at least in part by demonstrating how valuable the lives are that the sacrifice is made for, and his willingness to stare unflinchingly at the life to be sacrificed strengthens rather than weakens his position. In a way it saddens me that this novel has been such an influence on the modern series, since without that deftness of touch the various components don't always come together anywhere near as well; "The Girl Who Waited" is a case in point, with a sour and alienating conclusion to a promising setup.

I would say that at the time fans were talking about "Ace fatigue" and that everyone was aware the character would have been written out quicker if the TV series had continued - coupled with the initial bi-monthly schedule for the NAs I don't think they could have put off creating a new companion much longer. If anything, the first unforced error the series made was to bring her back so soon and in the way they did. But that's all to come...

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Darren K. 5 years, 3 months ago

Currently rereading Love and War, so I skipped your write-up, but I am quite looking forward to it. Hopefully nothing that I am posting here is covered in your writing. However, I think skipping 'Nightshade' might be a bit of a mistake. It and 'Love and War' coming out back to back, right after the barely connect Cat's Cradle books, really emphasised to me how much of a mess these early books were. In the case of 'Nightshade' and 'Love and War,' it was the depiction of Ace and her love life. I'm writing from twenty-five year old memory here, but both seemed to put a fair bit of emphasis on Ace's relationships outside of the Doctor, and the two books were wildly incompatible in that presentation, particularly coming one right after the other.

In terms of narrative gaps in an ongoing story - which is how the New Adventures were being presented - it was disarming. It seemed like no one was in charge. In both books, Ace undergoes a similar experience of falling in love, but they are depicted in very different ways, with 'L&W' making no reference to what had just happened in the book before, despite on the surface being the same story in many ways for Ace. It made the books seem even more separate from each other and what made up "Doctor Who". Obviously, some of these differences between stories are inherent in the series itself, but at this point the New Adventures were feeling like each new book was simply a different fan-fiction under an umbrella title.

I assume you write about 'L&W' being a relaunch in many ways for the New Adventures, a new pilot that everything after came from, but I feel that the strength of this is really emphasised if you have read 'Nightshade' as well. Which is a fun book and worth reading anyway.

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SpaceSquid 5 years, 3 months ago

I'd disagree, actually. Indeed, Nightshade's status as an entirely throwaway book (which it most certainly is, albeit a pretty entertaining one) just becomes all the more obvious when you compare it with Love and War. Reading the latter might make the flaws/missed opportunites of the former seem more obvious, but I don't think anything flows in the other direction.

After all, watching the Twin Dilemma does not add anything to The Caves of Androzani, other than irritation regarding how everything gets pissed away so quickly and so completely.

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Cameron Dixon 5 years, 3 months ago

I'm going entirely off memory here as my source material is currently packed up in boxes stacked under other boxes, but I believe there's a deleted scene in "The Curse of Fenric" that made its way into the novelisation: when Ace goes to Maidens' Point with Jean and Phyllis, they point out the name and say, "Well, that's us ruled out," and Ace laughs and says, "Me too."

It's couched in metaphor and implication, there's always the chance that Ace is an unreliable narrator joking to fit in, and of course that line didn't actually make it to the original broadcast; but the television series did at the very least get *close* to considering Ace's sexuality or lack thereof. Especially given the famous subsequent "Professor, I'm not a little girl."

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drfgsdgsdf 5 years, 3 months ago

You could make an argument that Nightshade is notable by being so traditional and throwaway. It's become a cliche to say 'I hated all the NAs-except Nightshade' It's also a wishlist for frustrated Hincliffe fans in the 80s:dark, violent, Hammer horror, and in a churlish moment the Doctor snapping at Ace for calling him professor.

IIRC Vanessa Bishop posits it as a road not taken in DWM. After this it splits from the TV Series irrevocably with a new companion

But Love and War blazes a path for the NAs by being a recognisable Who adventure-with a massive emotional difference. It uses the language of a Who alien invasion story, with possession, body horror and even back references to tell a different kind of story

A lot of contemporary fanzine press dismissed Revelation and Crucible as aberrations, the oddball episodes-both were compared to Warrior's Gate, and Warhead was just a non Who novel that Cartmel had altered slightly( this is all rubbish of course). But this book made it clear that things could never be quite the same again-at least in the Virgin line

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SpaceSquid 5 years, 3 months ago

"You could make an argument that Nightshade is notable by being so traditional and throwaway."

Fair point, though I'm not sure it could be spun out particularly far. "Hinchcliffe revival with added racial awareness" is fine as far as it goes, but aside from ticking off the ways in which Nightshade nods to the past, I'm not sure how much could be said from that perspective.

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Philip Sandifer 5 years, 3 months ago

Honestly, part of my hesitation with Nightshade was that, having done The Roundheads and been surprised by how hard it was to get a full entry out of it, I am somewhat twice shy over Gatiss, whose traditionalism I just find boring. I'm going to have enough trouble dealing with all his new series stories.

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Russell Gillenwater 5 years, 3 months ago

I have to say that I have looked forward to your review, Phil, of Love and War and it didn’t disappoint. This book was a seminal Doctor Who moment for me. The Ark in Space was the first my first TV story and that was a big moment and as the first NA I read, Love and War reignited my love of Doctor Who after I began drifting away from the series after it was cancelled.

The book also holds for me the distinction of being one of five stories to be my favorite Doctor Who story ever. The first three happen when I first started watching Who (The Ark in Space which was replacing by Genesis and then Pyramids of Mars). Love and War was the story that supplanted Pyramids and was only later passed by Human Nature, which is still my favorite Who story to date.

It is this book more than any other for the reason why I love the NAs. It introduced one of my favorite companions (Bernice Summerfield) and other concepts that hooked me on Who again. However, one of these you mentioned the line that he is “what monsters have nightmares about!” At the time I thought this was cool, but it is one of those horses that the Modern Series has borrowed and beat to death. Oh, one other observation is even though I liked it, if you think Nightshade was a throwaway, trying reading Love and War first.

Anyway, as mentioned one of my favorite parts of the novel is the introduction of Benny. I don’t know if you have mentioned this but will you cover her solo stuff (novel, audio or both) more in-depth after you finish with the NAs. I figured you would might since there might not be any Big Finish Doctor Who audios without those Benny ones that came first.

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SpaceSquid 5 years, 3 months ago

I suppose there might be something in the central image of the novel - an actor from an old sci-fi TV show discovers the monsters he fought on-screen are chasing him in the real world - but the book doesn't really do too much with the idea, IIRC. Though for those who care about such things, it's an interesting antecedent to Gatiss & company's League of Gentlemen's Apocalypse.

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Ed Jolley 5 years, 3 months ago

I think you're right.

Also, according to one of the early NA writers' guides from Virgin, it's implicit in the Dragonfire novelisation that Ace had her first sexual experience on Svartos.

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Adam Riggio 5 years, 3 months ago

An interesting tangent occurred to me as I was reading through the essay, Phil. It may anticipate some of what you'll cover when you get around to the EDAs, which you briefly describe here as the line that ends up pushed aesthetically so that, despite the title, it loses its nature as Doctor Who. My reasoning is a little convoluted, but I think it makes sense.

I remember you mentioning, long ago, that the Time War in the new series works in terms of Doctor Who having lost its master text, the narrative that could hold all the disparate ends of the show together. I also remember you mentioning that of the three major continuations of Doctor Who and the wilderness years, the only one whose ideas had no influence on the new series was the EDAs. Even so, the closest thing we had to an actual Gallifrey-destroying Time War in the wilderness years was The Ancestor Cell, an EDA. And in the storyline of the EDAs, the destruction of Gallifrey in The Ancestor Cell resulted in the Doctor forgetting who he was. This reminded me of another earlier comment of yours that the show, over time, tends to make the Doctor an increasingly pivotal figure in the universe of the show by the accumulating weight of the series itself being about him.

So I have a statement that seems in part to be text, paratext, metatext, and commentary. The Doctor forgetting his identity in-universe coincides with the storyline that destroys Gallifrey and explores its aftermath, which has pushed the EDAs as a novel range itself outside the nature of what Doctor Who is. Catastrophic memory loss is, literally, the loss of one's own master narrative, which it the metatextual interpretation of the Time War on Doctor Who as a media franchise. From a perspective inside the narrative, the Doctor committing double genocide as the climax to a war (even becoming a warrior himself, as some dialogue in Dalek suggests), is so outside his character that to see it on the show would break any connection of the Doctor to Doctor Who. So the mistakes and blunders of the EDAs are themselves the real-world version of the Time War.

Having written this down, I can see how ridiculous this is. Of course, it's no more ridiculous than your story of Robert Holmes and Graeme Harper being incarnations of the Doctor invading our world to extend his own life past his 13th regeneration. So I think I'm okay with this idea.

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Ununnilium 5 years, 3 months ago

Nothing to do with the current entry, but: I've been reading the Shada novelization, and it's quite good. Gareth Roberts certainly does a lot better faux-Adams narration than Eoin Colfer.

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cardboardrobot 5 years, 3 months ago

"I am somewhat twice shy over Gatiss, whose traditionalism I just find boring."

I completely agree. Nightshade just wasn't very interesting to a non-traditionalist and there isn't much to say about it. The only TV script of his that I like is "The Unquiet Dead," but there isn't much to say about that either. I'm a fan of the Hinchcliffe years, but I'm glad the show moved on from that approach -- this book demonstrates that not just anybody can do it and make it interesting. (I'm not sure it would work without Tom Baker's Doctor either, anyway.)

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Kit 5 years, 3 months ago

Also nothing to do with the current entry, but congrats on the 33? acceptance!

(The Shada novelisation is a bit pointless and sad for existing, but the audiobook has a certain degree of fun in hearing Lalla Ward do Tom's voice, and Leeson playing K-9...)

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Seeing_I 3 years, 3 months ago

I will say this for Witch Mark, it's got one of the most attractive pieces of cover art to grace the New Adventures.

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deepest_mummerset 2 months ago

If you are still reading these comments after all these years, please do review Nightshade; it is the most important piece of work Mark Gatiss has done for Doctor Who even if (sadly) it's potential legacy was never picked up on (especially by Mark Gatiss himself).

All the rest of Gatiss' writing for Doctor Who is about nostalgia FOR Doctor Who, Gatiss just wants to keep writing traditional Doctor Who adventures in keeping with his childhood memories of the show from the 70s.

On the other hand, his first published work for Doctor Who, Nightshade, is about nostalgia AND Doctor Who and here nostalgia is dangerous. People are drawn away from their real lives by enticing glimpses of the past which turn out to be deceptive, false and ultimately hollow to their terrible cost. As such, it has an emotional depth and a degree of self awareness which we, regrettably, have not seen from him since.

It's only a shame that Gattiss never seemed after to take on board the message of his own book so that the rest of his writing for Doctor Who, despite his evident talents, does not reach beyond shallow recycling and pastiche in the same way that Nightshade did.

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deepest_mummerset 1 month, 4 weeks ago

P.S. I appreciate your point that Nightshade is a stand alone novel as it doesn't add to the story arc of the New Adventures but thematically and emotionally it echoes down the range of novels and into the new series by cutting to the heart of the rad/trad debate.

Thanks

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