Title: Fear of the Dark
Author: Trevor Baxendale
Team TARDIS: Fifth Doctor, Tegan, Nyssa
Adversary: The Bloodhunter, The Dark
Original Publication Date: January 2003
Range and Number: Past Doctor Adventures #58
Synopsis (from TARDIS Wikia) -
On a moon of the ruined planet Akoshemon, an age-old terror is about to be reborn. Something that remembers the spiral of war, pestilence and deprivation – and rejoices in it. The Fifth Doctor joins a team of archaeologists searching for evidence of the planet's infamous past, and uncovers more than just ancient history. Forced to confront his own worst fears, even the Doctor will be pushed to breaking point – and beyond.
I have a lot of things to say about this story. Some of it will be bog-standard book review stuff about plot and characters and writing and storytelling. But some of it is going to be quite personal and introspective (and I might get in trouble for sharing some of it). Just - stick with me through this.
It is no secret that the Fifth Doctor is my Doctor. He's not the Doctor I started with, but he is the one I connect with the most (this is different from connecting with a certain Doctor's era - I freely admit that there are companions and characters and stories from other eras that I love just as much as I love the Fifth Doctor's era, but I just take the other Doctors are part of the package deal). But Five is the Doctor that I think I could actually talk to and who would listen, and at the same time I would listen to him. He’s very congenial and easy-going and pleasant company. Of all the Doctors, I would probably be best friends with the Fifth Doctor.
It is also no secret that I am a very emotionally tender person. No, that's putting it too kindly. I am a colossal wimp. When I was little, I would cry and get scared of the most ridiculous things. I can't even remember specifics because it's so embarrassing, but I just remember that they happened. I still have that problem as an adult, but I've trained myself to keep a lid on it until I can get somewhere that I can sob my eyes out (like locked in the bathroom). There are certain things that I find disturbing and distressing that most people can handle just fine. Example: When I was four, ET: The Extra Terrestrial scared the living crap out of me. But my two-year-old sister loved that movie (still does, as far as I know). She laughed and giggled at the movie while I was cowering at the bottom of the stairs just because the camera panned across a bunch of stuffed animals that E.T. was hiding in. Don't get me started on the cornfield scene. Or the guys in hazmat suits. Or E.T.'s family coming to pick him up. Just - don't show me that movie.
Another example of why my sister is so much braver than I am (that will come into play later) - my sister and I shared a room and I was terrified of the way the lights and shadows from outside would shine through our bedroom window, so I had to sleep with the light on. My sister wasn't scared, but I was. I'm sure it annoyed her to have to have the light on because I was such a baby, but she let it happen (I can only imagine how excited she was when we finally got our own rooms).
So, how does all this childhood trauma relate to "Fear of the Dark" and the Fifth Doctor? Of the books I've read from this 50th Anniversary range - I would rank this story as "The Caves of Androzani" of the series. After I finished it, I felt the same as I did the first time I watched “The Caves of Androzani” (that is one that I have to be in the right frame of mind to watch. It is a very well-crafted piece of storytelling, but damn if it doesn't make me ugly-cry every single time I watch it). I wandered around in a stunned-funk for a while, trying to come to grips with what I just read. It could very well be that the Fifth Doctor is my Doctor and anything bad that happens to him, I take very personally.
This review is probably the hardest one I've tried to write so far. Not because I hated "Fear of the Dark" - far from it! This book is probably the best one in this range so far. It ticked all the boxes for a good Fifth Doctor story for me. Actually, it ticked all the boxes for a good Doctor Who story, period! (I kept thinking “This is what ‘Ten Little Aliens’ should have been!”) The Doctor, Tegan and Nyssa were written beautifully - I could imagine this being adapted for Big Finish and I could even hear Peter Davison, Janet Fielding and Sarah Sutton’s voices in my mind as I read the dialogue between the characters. The side characters were wonderful - I cared about each of them, I wanted to know more of their backstory, I was sad when they died (spoilers - but you knew it was coming, right?) The whole thing was very atmospheric and scary and there were so many things that I picked up on that I could have written about (a lot of it is very personal and introspective for myself, which makes me so glad I got to read this book).
But my reaction to “Fear of the Dark” is not the cynical, world-weary, hipster take on a Doctor Who story. It’s less about technical aspects of crafting a piece of fiction and more about how the story made me feel and think. There were lots of times that I had to stop reading and go do something else for a while. I either wrote about the things this book made me think about or I’d go watch silly YouTube videos because I needed to take a break. This resulted in some very strange mood-whiplash as well as pages and pages of typed notes that will most likely not see the light of day.
There is such a contrast in giving a story this dark and foreboding to the Fifth Doctor. It seems like the all Doctor’s incarnations to this point (possibly with the exception of the First Doctor, at least initially) all got some kind of thrill from being the one in charge, the one that’s going to make everything better, the one that’s going to chase away the monsters. He is the Doctor, he is there to save the day, everyone else is stupid and beneath his notice except for his companions who are his best friends that he would do anything for (I’m over-simplifying the idea, but go with me on this).
By contrast, Five would rather leisurely explore the universe without running into Cybermen or the Master or Omega or violent and crazy mobs - but he gets drawn into these fights against his will, often with disastrous consequences. And while the Fifth Doctor does not want to be a hero, he will do the job if it is required, but very reluctantly. He is the one least-willing to let his companions get into the line of fire, but it somehow happens anyway. He is the one who wants everyone to get along and be friends because it’s easier than fighting all the time - but the more he tries to get people to calm down, the more violent and agitated they become.
But still - there is no reason to totally give up hope, just because you can’t see what’s coming ahead of you. The Doctor even says as much - when the Dark sneers that everything in the universe is afraid of the dark, the Doctor comes back with (paraphrasing) “people are afraid of not seeing what’s coming - afraid of the unknown that lurks in the dark.” And while the Doctor himself starts down that path of despair and hopelessness, he still comes out as the hero of the show - the one who fights off the monsters and saves the day. Because, of course he does. The Doctor’s always going to be there to light the way in the darkness - even if he needs a little help from his companions to bring him out of that very same darkness he’s fighting off.
Maybe I’m wrong in wanting my Doctor to be fallible and not affected by silly human worries - but something resonates with me if my hero can screw things up, but still be the hero in his companions’ eyes and my eyes as well. I relate to the Fifth Doctor because I have screw-ups too and they nag at me continually. And I see this Doctor deal with those same doubts, but he still moves on in spite of them. While going back to Gallifrey and being the content little Time Lord within the hallowed and stuffy system of the Citadel is never an option for the Doctor, I wonder if sometimes he feels like that would be so much easier. To give up the traveling and the adventures because it’s not worth the guilt and pain. I certainly have had similar thoughts in recent days, but it’s actually quite uplifting and encouraging to see my hero face that and still come out okay. Might not be 100% perfect, but he’s still the Doctor and he’s still going to do what he does regardless of how hard things get (and things are going to get harder as time goes on). But he keeps that promise, no matter what happens.
Something very hopeful in that, isn't there?
While the themes of hope and resilience played such a huge role in this story, for me it was Tegan and Nyssa's relationship that took center-stage (and by extension, their relationship with the Doctor). The theme of fear made me think of my younger sister and things that happened when we were kids, for reasons that I've mentioned a bit, but I'm going to get into more here.
Tegan and Nyssa are so different from each other, but their sisterly relationship is always so apparent. In “Fear of the Dark,” Nyssa’s telepathic abilities are severely affected by the Dark (it uses her to resurrect itself). The Doctor is having to run every which way he can to figure out what is going on, but it’s Tegan that’s concerned for Nyssa (the Doctor is worried for Nyssa too, but he’s so occupied with other things that by the time he gets to Nyssa’s problems, it’s almost too late). I sometimes gripe about Tegan getting so much attention because I really do love Nyssa and wish she got more to do, but there are times that I’m glad Nyssa and Tegan have that bond that only comes as you travel with the Doctor. I would dearly love to see two full-time companions from different time periods or even different planets who become best friends in New Who. It doesn't have to be romantic - just two people who wind up on the TARDIS by the most bizarre circumstances and who connect simply because they’re together and the Doctor’s kind of a loon (but still very lovable) and they each need someone to confide in.
People often wonder why Tegan and Nyssa needed to share a room in the TARDIS. The TARDIS is huge! You could have any room in the ship to yourself! Why share? Well, I think it’s because when you’re going through lots of wild and scary things, you’d like to know that there’s someone else there. Even though you know the Doctor’s in the console room tinkering around with some circuit or gadget, it’s a good feeling knowing someone else is close at hand in case things go wonky at the last minute. Tegan and Nyssa's relationship reminds me a lot of mine with my younger sister (the aforementioned much braver two-year-old who laughed at E.T. while her older sister was crying on the stairs) - both have very different personalities and there's no real reason for the two of them to get along, but they come to depend on each other in their travels, much the way I depended on my sister when we were little kids.
I wouldn't ever tell this to my sister’s face (unless she reads my blog, in which case - Hi, Emily! I’m about to really embarrass you!), but I did appreciate the fact that we shared a room when we were little. Like I said earlier, I was a colossal wimp (in spite of being the older sister) and still am in many ways. But Emily was always the brave one - when Mom or Dad were mad at us, I was the one freezing up and panicking that I was going to be in sooooo much trouble and I'd try to hide, but she didn't have a problem standing up for herself (and for me, from time to time). She let me sleep with the light on because I was scared of the shadows from the window. And I know it annoyed my sister, but she let me do it anyway. Looking back, I realize how nice that was of her to do that.
As I got older, I became very self-conscious that my little sister had to be the brave one and stick up for me when it should have been the other way around. To my great shame, I did some things in middle school that I really regret now - ignoring her when she came into middle school and treating her like a dumb little kid in front of my friends - “friends” that I now know were not the kindest people in the world and really didn’t deserve my time and attention. Nyssa may have felt that she was from a more civilized and advanced society, so she should be the one to look after Tegan (that does come up in a few scenes in “Fear of the Dark”), but she never tried to alienate Tegan just for being braver. And I guess it’s pathetic that it’s taken me this long to realize it (and seeing it through the eyes of a couple of fictional characters) - but I wish I could go back and tell 13-year-old me to be nicer to her sister because her sister’s the one who’s going to have your back later in life and all these idiots you’re trying to impress in middle school are going to leave you high and dry the minute it suits them.
In the end, Team TARDIS limps back to the ship, amazed that they've even made it back in one piece, surprised by how safe and peaceful it feels. And while they’re battered and bruised, there is still the promise of another day and another adventure. But after a good night’s rest first (with the lights on, of course).
I think that’s the most hopeful message Doctor Who could ever convey. It’s okay to feel drained and beat up by life and it’s okay to sleep with the light on. It’s okay to be scared of the things that you have to deal with - sometimes on a daily basis. But it’s also okay to be brave - even if you’re just pretending.
And, most importantly (for me), it’s okay to depend on your little sister.
I don't usually do dedications, but this post is dedicated to my sister Emily who helped me keep the monsters at bay. She probably doesn't realize that she did that - I didn't realize it until I read this book - but her bravery helped me be brave when I felt like doing the exact opposite. Still does, as a matter of fact - to this very day.
Next Time, On Librarian in the TARDIS -
Review 6.01 - If there was a contest for Most Unpopular Opinion... this one might just win.
Review 5.02 - Doctor Who Discovers a Twist in Time