“You may not like me. You may not like what I do, what I shall have to do. But I’m here to help you, and it may be that I’m the only help you have.”
So says the sixth Doctor in Grave Matter, perhaps the perfect rejoinder to this incarnation’s detractors and a fine moment for his fans. Grave Matter is a 2000 entry in BBC Books’ Past Doctors range, written by Justin Richard, then range consultant. He remains the creative director for Doctor Who novels, and has over twenty such works under his belt, plus more for spin-off characters such as Bernice Summerfield, and series of his own creation. Richards is certainly prolific, but his work rarely gets heaped with praise by fans. He’s a solid sort of writer, the Terrance Dicks of the modern era, producing decent, meat-and-potatoes stories rather than ground-breaking works.
Grave Matter is a case in point. It’s solidly traditional, going for the Hammer Horror styled spooky atmosphere of the Hinchcliffe era of the TV series rather than the bombast of the sixth Doctor’s period. There’s an air of mystery throughout the early part of the book, as the Doctor and Peri arrive on the island of Dorsill, unaware of their location in time or space and confused by the anachronistic elements in this Victorian community. This is a red herring on the author’s part, but a genuine mystery unfolds as the travellers explore the isolated settlement, and it becomes apparent that an alien influence has entered into the islanders’ lives.
While there are moments that may have translated better to screen - the action-packed climactic scenes, particularly – Richards has a way with the chills, creating an unsettling atmosphere from the Doctor and Peri’s early encounter with a raving, bedraggled figure, through the increasingly unearthly goings on in Dorsill. As the punning title suggests, Grave Matter deals with the unrestful dead, and although it never becomes an all-out zombie thriller, it has its share of shambling corpses. An ad hoc exhumation turns into a deadly encounter, while later, masses of unfeeling human slaves – not dead, but certainly zombified – form an unstoppable force for the Doctor to try to overcome.
At the heart of the goings on is a thoroughly old-fashioned alien infection plot, in the mould of Invasion of the Bodysnatchers or Quatermass 2, but brought up to date with some interesting speculation on the possibilities of the computational powers of DNA. This gets mangled into an ordinary tale of scientific zeal leading to a nefarious end, as the regenerative properties of the infectious Denarian material lead a group of geneticists on a misjudged quest for immortality for the human race. While it stops short of the sort of horror that Torchwood later explored in its Miracle Day series, the impossibility of death for the infected leads to some horrific scenes that outstrip the traditionalist era it’s based on, including the repeated attempts by one character to commit suicide by increasingly violent means.
There are some fine horror moments, from the clichéd walking dead to the more inventive, such as an alarming sequence in which Peri finds herself face to face with a flock of possessed seagulls – a scene which made me shiver, as I hate the vicious things. Despite a storyline and atmosphere that suggest an update of Tom Baker’s gothic horror era, Richards makes it work perfectly for the sixth Doctor and Peri, both being accurately reproduced without ever falling into the trap of becoming insufferable, as they occasionally did on TV. The Doctor, in particular, is very well characterised: arrogant, impatient and short-tempered when the stakes are high, yet charming and sweetly tolerant when in more relaxed company. Particularly effective is a sweet scene in which he takes time to walk the elderly local gossip home and provide her with some much-needed conversation, remembering what it was like to be old and faced with impatient younger people.
There’s nothing spectacular on offer here, nothing that will make the reader rethink Doctor Who or the characters within. Instead, it’s a straightforward, if reasonably complex tale of paranoia told in a classic horror background. A good, old-fashioned sort of read.