Doctor Who: Engines of War

A few months ago, BBC Books announced George Mann’s Engines of War, a hardcover Doctor Who novel that starred John Hurt’s Doctor, seen in the 50th-anniversary special, “The Day of the Doctor,” during the Time War.

The Great Time War has raged for centuries, ravaging the universe.  Scores of human colony planets are now overrun by Dalek occupation forces.  A weary, angry Doctor leads a flotilla of Battle TARDISes against the Dalek stronghold but in the midst of the carnage, the Doctor’s TARDIS crashes to a planet below: Moldox.

As the Doctor is trapped in an apocalyptic landscape, Dalek patrols roam amongst the wreckage, rounding up the remaining civilians.  But why haven’t the Daleks simply killed the humans?

Searching for answers the Doctor meets ‘Cinder’, a young Dalek hunter.  Their struggles to discover the Dalek plan take them from the ruins of Moldox to the halls of Gallifrey, and set in motion a chain of events that will change everything.  And everyone.

John Hurt’s Doctor was, for me, the highlight of the anniversary special.  For a long, long time I wanted to see Hurt at the controls of the TARDIS.  I always thought he had that Doctor-ish quality and, a few months ago for fun, I wrote a retrospective of an imaginary Hurt-era.  People ask me who my Doctor is, and I tell them, in all seriousness, “John Hurt is my Doctor.”

Though Engines of War isn’t out in the US until September (and then in a paperback edition by Random House), the hardcover came out in the UK last month, and on Thursday I had a package waiting for me in my mailbox — Engines of War in a shiny hardback.

After the week I had, I needed it.  Oh, did I need it.  I finished Engines this morning.  What follows is not so much a review as a reaction to the book and some of its elements.

I wanted to love Engines of War.  I only liked it.

First, the good.

The plot is solid and interesting.  The Doctor discovers an alarming situation on the planet Moldox, he unwillingly gains a partner with a personal stake in the situation, he realizes that he’s in over his head and has to turn to Gallifrey for help in resolving the situation, and that puts him in an entirely different pit of vipers.  It’s straightforward and linear; there’s no counterplot, it doesn’t run off on dead-end tangents, even when Cinder joins the Doctor the book remains centered on the Doctor and his story.  If you like your Doctor Who with a little more plot and a little less nonsense (in other words, the antithesis of the Steven Moffat era), Engines of War is the Doctor Who story you’re looking for.

The Doctor is characterized well.  Notice that I do not say the “War Doctor.”  The novel consistently refers to him as “the Doctor,” the characters, including new companion Cinder, call him “the Doctor,” and at no point does he do anything that a different Doctor would not have done.  Even the way the Doctor dispatches the main antagonist is not out of line with past characterization.  He is simply the Doctor, full stop.  Some of his dialogue captures the Doctor’s poetic flights of fancy, and I could “hear” John Hurt behind some of the lines.  (Of course, it helps that Hurt has a distinctive voice.) John Hurt, as I’ve said, is my Doctor, and this book didn’t change that one iota.

By the way, Mann manages to do something Moffat could not — create a consistent characterization of Hurt’s Doctor. His Doctor’s emotional journey in “The Day of the Doctor” doesn’t make a lick of sense; he’s glum and near suicidal on Gallifrey and into the barn, he suddenly turns jaunty and happy-go-lucky when he meets the tenth and eleventh Doctors, then he turns seriously glum again back in the barn, and then be becomes serene when they find a way to “save” Gallifrey.  The “meeting” scene in Elizabethan England doesn’t really fit the Doctor we see in the rest of the story; he’s too upbeat, a little dense, and a bit idiotic.  I realize that Moffat conceived of that scene (and the story as a whole) with Eccleston as the ninth Doctor, but that scene in particular desperately needed to be rewritten because it’s out of place and out of character.

Cinder, though something of a pastiche of previous companions, is a fascinating one-off companion.  The immediate comparison is to Rose; like Rose she “awakens” the Doctor to the possibility of an existence that offers more than wandering in loneliness.  Like Leela, life has made her a warrior, and now she sees a way out of that life and an opportunity to become the person she’s capable of being.  But I would really compare her to Izzy, and not only because, like Izzy, Cinder is a lesbian; like Izzy, she’s seen enough that the Doctor’s world doesn’t take her by surprise.  (In Cinder’s case, it’s from personal experience; in Izzy’s case, it’s from watching Star Trek: The Next Generation.  That’s what I loved about Izzy; she was conceived as, “What if we put a science-fiction fan in the TARDIS?”) Cinder comes with interesting baggage by virtue of a lifetime spent fighting Daleks in the ruins of her homeworld.  (And I’d like to think the Greenpeace t-shirt she adopts halfway through the book is one of Sam Jones’ leftovers.)

The setting of much of the book, the Tantalus Eye, is conceptually a fascinating place.  The Doctor’s description of it is evocative.  What it’s capable of is certainly unique.  It’s a nebula made of raw time rather than raw materials.  It’s like the Darkheart from David McIntee’s The Dark Path, but infinitely more powerful.

The Skaro Degradations and the Interstitials.  The Skaro Degradations were interesting; they’re a bit of a misnomer in that they really are pure Daleks, albeit unusual ones.  (They reminded me a great deal of Big Finish’s Dalek Empire II with its alt-universe Daleks.) The Interstitials reminded me a bit of some of Lawrence Miles’ concepts, like something inbetween I.M. Foreman and the Celestis.  In a total war, everything is on the table for both sides.

Now, the bad.

The pages turn quickly, but the writing is superficial at best.  Someone on Gallifrey Base compared George Mann’s prose to Dan Brown.  It’s not that bad, but it’s also not ambitious.  I would call Mann’s prose functional and very tell-y; sometimes it felt like I was reading a super-detailed outline.  The writing sometimes is as subtle as a sledgehammer.  I wanted more depth to Engines of War, and I couldn’t help but imagine how a different writer — a Lawrence Miles, a Lance Parkin, perhaps even a Timothy Zahn — would have written this.  The story has the plot of a New Adventure (in that it’s too big and too wide for the small screen), but in execution it’s like a Terrence Dicks novelization.

The Doctor’s antagonists have all the depth of Snidely Whiplash.  The Daleks are what we expect them to be — they want to exterminate ad nauseum.  Rassilon shouts and spits, but at least we have Timothy Dalton’s performance to reference.  The real failure is Karlax, a sadistic assholish toady of Rassilon, whose entire motivation is “a sadistic assholish toady of Rassilon.”  Why does Karlax do what he does?  Mann never explains.  Why does Karlax hate the Doctor so much?  I have no idea.  He exists to be an obstacle for the Doctor to get past; he’s a plot point, not a character, and I think the book suffers for that.  You take the measure of a hero by the opponents he has to face, and the Doctor’s opponents in Engines of War are not at all impressive.

Cinder’s fate.  Given the circumstances of the novel — this is the Doctor’s adventure prior to the Fall of Arcadia and “The Day of the Doctor” — Cinder’s fate shouldn’t come as any sort of surprise.  The problem is the execution.  It’s a “women in refrigerators” moment for the Doctor.  He’s been able to stomach this, this, this, and this, but what happens to Cinder is what finally pushes him over the edge and motivates him to do what he does in “The Day of the Doctor.”  Plus, to achieve his goal the Doctor hadn’t had to sacrifice anything — he’s locked up, his TARDIS is impounded, but he overcomes both of these with ease — so at the end the story sacrifices the only character other than the Doctor with whom we’ve spent any time at all — Cinder.  I think that’s an unfortunate choice on Mann’s part, to reduce her in the end to a motivational tool and a sacrificial pawn.

So, in the end, Engines of War is a mixed bag.  It gave me what I wanted — a novel starring John Hurt’s Doctor.  It gave me a strong story, and it gave me an interesting character in Cinder.

But I needed more from it.  I needed to see why the Doctor who fought the Time War was different, and I didn’t an appreciable difference.  I needed to see a Doctor faced with impossible dilemmas and challenging enemies who would push him to his limit, and I didn’t.

I liked Engines of War.  I didn’t love it.  It could have been so much more.

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