Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Family. It's About Time.

Librarian in the TARDIS, Review 10.3

Title: Beautiful Chaos
Written by: Gary Russell
Team TARDIS: Tenth Doctor, Donna Noble (and I’ll include Wilfred Mott, just because)
Adversary: Mandragora Helix, Dara Morgan, Madam Delphi
Originally Released: December 2008
Range and Number: New Series Adventures, #29

Synopsis (from TARDIS Wikia) -
Wilfred Mott is very happy: his granddaughter, Donna, is back home, catching up with family and gossiping about her journeys, and he has just discovered a new star and had it named after him. He takes the Tenth Doctor with him to the naming ceremony. But the Doctor soon discovers something else new, and worryingly bright, in the heavens – something that is heading for Earth. It’s an ancient force from the Dark Times. And it is very, very angry...

My Review:
More than any other book (mostly because I’d hadn’t read any Classic Doctor novels), this was the one that I was most excited to see in this reprint range for the 50th Anniversary. Chronologically, it’s the last novel to be published with Donna as a companion and it also serves as a final goodbye to her story. But it also sort of sets up what comes next for the Noble family - even though it was published a year before “The End of Time” aired on TV (not sure what Gary Russell knew beforehand, or if he’s just really good at guessing. Either way, it’s a real treat). I didn’t know any of those details the first time I read this, though. I loved it on its own merits - just because it’s a fantastically beautiful story and there was something that drew me in. I think of all the novels they could have chosen for the Tenth Doctor, this is the one that most accurately represents how the Tenth Doctor solidified my love of Doctor Who - the reason I continued on in the show and into the fandom.

This story has all the hallmarks of an RTD-era story. One of the biggest differences between Classic Who and New Who that I've often heard talked about between is the greater emphasis on the companions’ family and friends in the new series. In our modern of television, that seems like a no-brainer. Family relationships are often explored in-depth on many popular TV shows - but back in the 1960s and beyond, it wasn't that big of a deal. Especially (I suppose) in science-fiction TV. Because the focus was typically on alien threats or sciencey explanations, not on characters’ background and family ties. The characters were largely a vehicle to tell an alien invasion story and didn't matter a whole lot. But think about it - did Sarah Jane’s Aunt Lavinia worry about her when she didn't come back from UNIT? How did Ian and Barbara’s family and friends react to their disappearance and inexplicable return two years later? What happened in the aftermath of the death of Tegan’s Aunt Vanessa? (oops - spoiler alert for “Logopolis” on that one) Scads of fanfiction has probably been written about these (and other) questions from Classic Who because, well, our modern perceptions about characters have changed. It’s not just about plot-driven stories (though heaven knows I love a tightly-woven plot) - you also need sympathetic characters to relate to and, sometimes, that involves bringing in their families and friends. And because those are largely missing from Classic Who, the fans step in and fill in the gaps.

(Speaking of fanfiction filling in the gaps in companions' lives, here's a wonderful story dealing with Ian and Barbara's return home and how they have to deal with friends' and family's questions about where they've been: Homecoming by Kazzy)

Now that I've got that tangent out of my system - "Beautiful Chaos" starts out with the Doctor bringing Donna to May 15, 2009 - the one-year anniversary of her father’s death. Donna's mother, Sylvia, is as abrasive as ever, but Grampa Wilf is understanding and loving and patient toward his granddaughter. The Doctor, sensing that he could be an unwelcome addition to this solemn day for the Noble family, takes off in search of some clue that has mysteriously appeared on the psychic paper.

(And, looking at the date, I realize that this probably creates a huge issue with the events after “Journey’s End” - what with Donna having had her mind wiped and all - but the fun of the novels is that their canonicity is very fluid. And if you don’t look too closely at it, you can enjoy a great little story without having the panic of “Canon Blinders” getting in the way of your fun. Thus, is the appeal of Doctor Who. At least, in the opinion of your not-so-humble correspondent, it ought to be).

As far as this story’s placement within the events of Series 4 (from Team TARDIS’s point of view, anyway) - At first, I was certain that this novel is set somewhere after “The Doctor’s Daughter.” But there was one line that made me think it could be after the Library two-parter. The Doctor is contemplating giving someone a hint about their personal future, but then he thinks that might not be a good idea. And then there’s this one sentence in its own paragraph:

“Spoilers, as someone once said.”

So, while there’s no more concrete evidence than that, I actually think this story comes some time after the Doctor and Donna’s trip to the Library. Which, given the bleakness and emotional roller coaster that was, puts even more poignancy into it. Like I wasn’t already thisclose to crying.

Anyway - back to House Noble: Wilfred has two new things in his life - (1) a not-girlfriend, Henrietta “Netty” Goodhart (subtle one there, Gary) and (2) Wilf has discovered a new star, which the Royal Planetary Society has named the 7432MOTT in Wilf’s honor. But the new star isn't everything it seems - it’s actually a Chaos Body, one of a number of unexplained space phenomena that are actually attached to the Mandragora Helix that has come to take over the population of Earth.

(If “Mandragora Helix” sounds familiar, that’s because this story is a sequel-of-sorts to the Fourth Doctor story, “The Masque of Mandragora.” I have seen “Masque,” but I don’t remember what happened. It’s one of those that I sort of lost interest in partway through and it just became background noise while I was doing something else and when it was over, I was left thinking “What the crap just happened?” Maybe your experience is different. If it is, let me know.)

The Mandragora has taken over a number of people and they’re converging on the Doctor because the Mandragora remembered how the Doctor stopped it all those centuries ago and it wants revenge. And it’s going to take it on the Doctor’s friends before it actually takes over the Doctor (a Time Lord would be a great little host for the psychic-based Mandragora). However, Netty, volunteers to be bait for the Mandragora - because Netty is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, the Mandragora could take her over and if she “slips” into an Alzheimer’s episode, the Mandragora won’t be able to do anything and could be defeated.

(Tissues, anyone?)

This, understandably, upsets Wilf and, by extension, Donna. But once she understands the dangers and what’s at stake, Netty is insistent that she be the one to take the risk. And the scene that follows is handled so beautifully and so touching that you almost forget about the huge, impending alien threat. Ultimately, this story is more about the human relationships - first, the family relationships with Donna, Sylvia, and Wilfred; second, the relationship between Wilfred and Netty (and, to a lesser-degree, between Sylvia and Donna’s father, Geoff). And it makes sense to have that kind of shift in focus, especially since the Doctor has lost his home and family - no matter how terrible the Time Lords became, there still must have been friends or family that he left behind.

Now, I know there are probably going to be a few fanboys who’ll get all bent out of shape over those “icky feelings and emotions” getting into their Doctor Who - there is a serious alien threat in the story that you can focus on if you choose to (I deliberately did not include any of the spoilery details of the Mandragora’s plans to take over the universe, so you can read all about that yourselves). But what I love about this story is that the fear of alien threat is compounded by the connection I (as a reader) have to the characters involved. It brings the story home and makes me feel even more invested than I was before. And it also allows me to read more into other stories from Doctor Who’s past and make other connections and read between the lines - and probably write fanfic in my head (though I don’t know if I’d ever feel comfortable enough to write my own).

To conclude - fantastic story, bit of a tear-jerker, lovely character moments, return of a Classic Who villain (which, you’d only notice if you were familiar with the Mandragora in the first place), and it all makes for my favorite New Series Adventure novel. Highly recommended and, with it being reprinted for the 50th Anniversary, now is a great time to add it to your bookshelf.

(C’mon - do it! You know you want to!)

Another Thing I Noticed But Couldn’t Shoehorn Into My Review - The Tenth Doctor hates bow ties. When he’s getting ready to accompany Donna and Wilf to the big Star-Naming Banquet with the Royal Planetary Society, he has to dress up in black-tie and he remarks that bow ties make him look like a waiter. Obviously, formal dress bow ties are slightly different than the Eleventh Doctor’s professorial bow ties, but it was a hilarious remark, knowing what the Doctor’s next incarnation’s dress sense becomes. Almost makes me wish Ten could meet Amy Pond.

Next Time, on Librarian in the TARDIS -
Review 11.1 - The One That Saved My Life (not exaggerating in the slightest - you’d think I’d get tired of telling this story...)

Previously -
Bonus Review #2 - The Enemy of My Enemy

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