Sunday, 9 October 2011

'The Silent Stars Go By' and the future of Doctor Who novels

There's been a marked improvement in the range of Doctor Who novels of late. I'm not alone in missing the ongoing range of adventures for the eighth Doctor, and the 'past Doctor' adventures that were released along side it, which were released by the BBC in the years before the return of the show to TV. This was itself the continuation of a tradition started by Virgin, which published New and Missing Adventures in the 1990s. There were clunkers, yes, but overall, we were treated to a collection of complex, well-written, full-length prose adventures for Doctors one through eight, many of which really pushed the envelope of what Doctor Who could be. The more recent releases, featuring Doctors nine, ten and eleven, have been shorter, more simplistic, and often rather generic. There have been a few excellent examples, and the range in, undeniably, a huge success, yet I'm pleased that the BBC has begun to allow a little experimentation and development again.

Firstly, the regular range has improved of late. I began to regularly buy the novels again once the eleventh Doctor arrived, in order to review them for The History of the Doctor. The fact that they could be bought super-cheap from Sainsbury's didn't hurt. And, although they've been good fun, with some fine examples of the style, they've mostly stuck to the lightweight formula. The last batch of three, however, was a great improvement. Naomi Alderman's Borrowed Time, George Mann's Paradox Lost and Touched by an Angel by Jonathan Morris make for the best batch in a long time. Add to these the superb and suprisingly mature Dead of Winter, James Goss's novel from the previous lot, and there are clear signs of improvement.

Most encouraging of all, however, is the introduction of sporadicly released novels in a larger, longer format. First was The Coming of the Terraphiles, by the legendary Michael Moorcock. Some dislike the fact that this is a typical Moorcock novel that happens to feature the Doctor, but I loved it, and now want to read more from an author about whom I'd heard good things but not previously tried. The Silent Stars Go By, the new novel by Dan Abnett, doesn't quite live up to the expectations due to it's predecessor, but it's a grand read. Essentially a Christmas special, albeit one not actually featuring Christmas, it draws the reader into a world of devestating cold with great skill. I put it aside for a few days - it arrived on my doormat on October 1st, during a week in which Britain was experiencing unseasonably warm weather - and picked it up once the temperaturees began to drop on Earth, as well as Hereafter. Abnett perfectly nails the regular trio of Amy, Rory and the Doctor, and his Ice Warriors are a joy, all raw power and aggression. Aside from the somewhat increased length, there's not much to distinguish it from the main range; but, considering how good this has lately become, this isn't actually a bad thing.

Dan Abnett isn't such a draw to a non-fan audience as Moorcock, but he is the tie-in king, hugley popular with fans of Warhammer novels and having been involved in numerous other shared universes. He even wrote for the nineties Ghostbusters comic, which is very cool. Nonetheless, I'm more enthused with some of the names announced for the future. Shada, the abandoned script from 1980, is due to be novelised by Gareth Roberts, whose recent work on the TV series (he wrote The Lodger and its sequel) has been Doctor Who comedy at its best. While this is a project and an author more likely to appeal to established fans such as me, the adaptation of a Douglas Adams script should turn a few heads. Better still is the announcement that both Alastair Reynolds and Stephen Baxter are to write full-length Who novels. Reynolds and Baxter are two of the most talented, highly regarded hard sci-fi authors writing today, and the prospect of Doctor Who written with their skill and style is very exciting. I just hope Baxter doesn't have to pull out, as he did with his Big Finish script. It also means that, after seven years, we'll finally be getting new novels for old Doctors, with Roberts taking on the fourth, Reynolds the thrid and Baxter the second. This, and the direction of the main range lately, give me hope that Doctor Who novels could be entering a new age of quality, sci-fi adventure.

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