It’s January of 1998 – the month after The Roundheads came out, for helpful reference. But in this case, the slow undulations of the wilderness years aren’t really what I want to talk about, because the book we have on offer today is really quite interesting on its own merits. The Face of the Enemy is an oddity in the Doctor Who novels range. It’s one of two books from the Missing/Past Doctor adventures lines to focus entirely on characters other than the Doctor. The first of these – Virgin’s Downtime – is just the novelization of a Marc Platt-penned direct to video story with the Yeti in it. But this one is a different beast – a story of what UNIT gets up to while the Doctor is on one of his periodic jaunts off-world – to Peladon, in this case.
The result is a story that goes a long way towards disentangling some of the issues and juxtapositions of the Pertwee era. Because we’ve only really seen, at this point, two Pertwee stories that work much like traditional Doctor Who. Other than that, Pertwee has been paired up with the Brigadier and, in most of the stories, Yates and Benton. The Curse of Peladon, in fact, is the first story in the Pertwee era not to feature the Brigadier. So thus far, there’s been no way to meaningfully tell the difference between a Pertwee-era Doctor Who story and a UNIT story. And as I’ve already suggested, this is perhaps at the root cause of some of the tensions we’ve found so far in the Pertwee era.
And let’s be clear – the tensions are there. Contrary to the apparent beliefs of some of my esteemed commenters, I actually do like the Pertwee era. It’s my least favorite era of Doctor Who, true, but that’s like declaring the 2000 vintage my least favorite vintage of a fine wine. I still love the thing. But good lord, the era is utterly schizoid in spots. I keep harping on the ending of The Silurians largely because it captures the fundamental problem – the show can’t decide what it wants to be. And it handles this strangely – it tends to charge off in a given direction, and then, in the next story, charge off in a different direction with minimal heed paid to its compatibility with the last direction. With only the continuity of actors to hold it together, the era becomes… schizoid. I mean, that’s really the only way to describe a show that went from the social realist thriller approach of The Mind of Evil to the glam mania of The Claws of Axos. Yes, Doctor Who has always been about contrast between stories – hence going from Vortis to the Crusades. But it’s one thing to go from the tone of The Web Planet to the tone of The Crusades with a time machine. It’s quite another to do it while remaining on Earth.
But that’s changing. UNIT stories, in season nine, become one format among many. In fact, there are only two of them all season, and at the start of the next season, the original premise of the show is formally restored. And if Doctor Who no longer has to mean UNIT, why should UNIT continue having to mean that the weird dude with the frilly shirts shows up? And that, in essence, is what this book is – an exploration of this strange obverse of the Pertwee era. As Pertwee gets a show without UNIT, let’s give UNIT a show without Pertwee.
Obviously some adjustments need to be made. Just as Jo finds herself taking on new roles in space stories compared to earthbound ones in order to fill out some of the plot roles vacated by other characters, so is some effort needed to fulfill the Doctor’s plot functions. McIntee seems to largely identify two major roles the Doctor plays – the genius who can figure things out that humans can’t, and the moral conscience of the story. And it’s the choices he makes to fulfill these roles are both fascinating and, ultimately, the heart and soul of the book.
The science genius role mostly ends up going to the Master in a bit of Silence of the Lambs inspired “deal with the devil” storytelling. This makes sense – McIntee’s fondness for the character is well-established, after all. And in many ways this book is a sequel to The Dark Path. McIntee maintains his portrayal of the Master as a hero gone wrong. And unlike in his previous Master story, this focuses on the Master when he has well and truly gone wrong, which has advantages over “the story of how the Master became a villain,” which was inevitably going to be an anticlimax. Instead we get scenes like the Master admitting that scientific curiosity is his “one uncorrupted vice,” a line that is delightful in its implications about the Master’s psyche.
As for the moral conscience of the book, McIntee manages a truly brilliant move. Actually, to be fair, he manages it on both fronts. The obvious solution to both problems is just to call Liz Shaw in for this story and have her provide the science and conscience for the book. But the less obvious solution of using the Master is self-evidently more interesting, and McIntee is savvy to keep Liz out of this book. (Indeed, she’s virtually the only UNIT character kept out – even Harry Sullivan is in there.) The only problem is that you then need a second character for the moral duties. And as I said, McIntee manages a belter here: Ian and Barbara.
It’s genuinely tough to overstate the sheer cleverness of this. I am admittedly a massive Ian and Barbara cheerleader (and this book once again makes me view my critique of Ian in this post as the single stupidest thing I have ever posted to the Internet), but I think this book mostly just shows why fawning adoration is the sensible approach to Ian and Barbara. Of course, much of that is also down to McIntee. I vaguely recall reading an interview somewhere in which he admitted to not being very familiar with the characters and not quite knowing what to do with them. If I remember correctly, then this is shocking news – he not only nails the characters themselves, he nails finding roles for them to play in the narrative.
Essentially what he plays on is the seniority of Ian and Barbara – the fact that they are, in terms of the Doctor and his world, genuinely the people who have known and dealt with that world for the longest. And as a result, and this is the key part, they display genuine and earned misgivings about that world. And, liberated by the twenty-five years of social liberalization between 1972 and 1997, McIntee is able to put some powerful depth to those misgivings, most notably when Barbara reflects that “It was as if the Doctor had left a shadow on her and Ian, just waiting to darken their lives. Like the one the Daleks’ poisoned atmosphere had left on them. But that was a shadow they had cheated through treatment, and John was living proof of that.”
There’s a lot of genius to those lines. Obviously they’re a case of darkening and maturing Ian and Barbara as characters. But this isn’t done crassly or exploitatively – the lines are discrete, and it’s not like it’s an Ian/Barbara sex scene. The real cleverness is that they add a depth to their adventures that wasn’t there in the original episodes, but that is wholly compatible with them. In fact, these lines might be more compatible with the basic spirit of The Daleks than any of the subsequent Dalek stories. After all, Doctor Who in its first season was about the juxtapositions of the mundane (Ian and Barbara) and the fantastic (the Daleks). By running that process in reverse and having Skaro intrude on the ordinary domestic lives of Ian and Barbara in such a starkly painful way is a case of the books doing exactly what the show itself is supposed to do, only in ways the show never could.
And given this, the book delights in stressing the interactions between the Master and both Ian and Barbara. The high point, of course, is the Master manipulating Ian out of committing suicide following Barbara’s apparent death, and then deciding to conceal from Ian the fact that she’s still alive so he remains angry and effective. But other smaller moments like the Master being surprised that Barbara thinks to ask why he hates the Doctor instead of blindly siding with the Doctor, or Ian surmising the Master’s motivations and history in a way we’ve never seen anyone do (and never really see again) are equally lovely.
Not that the focus on McIntee’s characterization of the Master, Ian, and Barbara should detract from his excellent handling of the UNIT regulars. All of them – particularly the Brigadier, who benefits from McIntee doing a much defter job of exploring his personal life than Gary Russell earlier managed (while still picking up Russell’s threads) – are well handled, with the same deftness that Ian and Barbara get – small moments in which the broad strokes of character traits we see on the show get used to show new depths of the characters.
All of this is slotted into an effective conspiracy thriller plot, but that’s beside the point in many ways. It’s a straightforward Doctor Who plot, and a sequel to Inferno. But that’s how it should be. The point of this book is to show the way in which the UNIT era could have forked off of Doctor Who as easily as Doctor Who forked off of the UNIT era. That means remaining adjacent to what Doctor Who was at the time, and the plot is just about the last thing to futz with. Much like Power of the Daleks used the Daleks to ease a big transition, this book uses Inferno to do the same.
What I’m getting at, really, is that this book is why books like this exist. It’s an effective study of aspects of the Pertwee era that weren’t adequately explored over its five years. It does things that couldn’t have been done on television, but that were still worth doing. It expands on our understanding of characters, and throws up juxtapositions we haven’t seen before. It’s one of the rare retro stories where one feels as though the era is enriched by its presence. Having this in continuity gives reason for the UNIT era to come to a close. It shows that they don’t need the Doctor. In fact, strictly in terms of UNIT, it’s a better story than anything the Pertwee era actually gave them. Without the Doctor to fix them all in their predictable orbits, all seven familiar characters in this book shine in ways they never could in Doctor Who.
The book, in other words, justifies its existence better than pretty much any other Time Can Be Rewritten entry we’ve looked at save Simon Guerrier’s The Time Travelers. It is, in short, a story that needed to be told. Not only can time be rewritten, sometimes it should be.