THIS STORY TAKES
PLACE BETWEEN THE
59" AND "THE FALL
OFFICIAL BBC 'EIGHTH
RELEASED IN FEBRUARY
The Brigadier's wife
is dead. A terrible
accident. Grieving, he
searches for death,
and finds his way to
Avalon, the other-
of the Catuvelauni.
Of all Paul Cornell’s Doctor Who novels, The Shadows of Avalon is probably
the one that held the most allure. Charged with bringing one chapter of the eighth Doctor’s long and torturous life to an end and beginning another, Cornell was able to justify wheeling out some of the most exciting toys without worrying about which range he was plucking them from. Here we have the Time Lords, their President, and their War in Heaven; UNIT and the young-again Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart; a nascent TARDIS lurking inside Compassion; even fairytale versions of Earth Reptiles. These elements are all intertwined with the author’s customary skill, resulting in a very strong novel with a captivating opening and an even more engrossing end. The Dungeons and Dragons-style sandwich filling may not be to my taste, but even there the book didn’t let me down.
The plot concerns the Time Lords’ attempt to acquire a new technology; one that could turn the tide in their tantalisingly-nebulous dispute with “the People” and their first contact with “the Enemy.” The newly-regenerated President Romana, now “War Queen and Mistress of the Nine Gallifreys”, despatches two notorious agents to obtain the new technology as soon as it emerges at any cost. No-one is to stop them, not even him…
Meanwhile, in 2012, General Lethbridge-Stewart – still known to everyone as “the Brigadier,” naturally – is grieving for his wife Doris, who was killed in a tragic boating accident for which the old soldier was partly to blame. This apparently youthful General is older than we’ve ever seen him on the inside. As such, he’s relieved when a call to arms allows him to extricate himself from a session with his psychiatrist – a nuclear warhead has gone astray, and it’s
up to him to find it.
The novel’s opening chapters explore the Brigadier’s grief ever so beautifully. To say that
the character isn’t buoyed by Nicholas Courtney’s stalwart performance here, Cornell does
a masterful job of portraying the most recognisable of Doctor Who characters in an almost completely unrecognisable state, yet making him still demonstrably the Brig throughout. Torn apart by sorrow, the Brigadier remains as pragmatic and as duty-minded as ever.
The Doctor, likewise, is grieving. It doesn’t take Cornell long to destroy the Doctor’s faithful old type 40 TARDIS here, robbing him of his oldest friend and companion, not to mention his home of eight lifetimes. It may be a device that’s been done to death both before and since, but here the destruction of the TARDIS feels more real somehow. It’s a sudden, understated development, but nonetheless one that would stick; one that would have consequences. At least for a little while.
For me, one of The Shadows of Avalon’s most interesting aspects is Cornell’s handling of these two old men, trapped in another dimension, each wearing a body that doesn’t betray their years, and each dealing with the most personal of losses by throwing themselves into their respective causes. The Doctor revels in dashing acts of comic book heroism, battling military jets on the back of dragons, whilst the Brigadier plays the perfect soldier, valiant
and loyal. And therein lies the rub: for the first time in many years, we see the Doctor and Brigadier on opposing sides. In doing his duty by the book, the Brigadier inadvertently plays right into the Time Lord agents’ hands, leading to war in Avalon.
To Cornell’s credit, he manages to stay true to both these seminal characters and yet still develop their relationship in new and surprising ways. Their quarrel aside, one particularly poignant moment stands out in which each character goes against the grain: the Doctor offers to go back in time and save Doris, breaking all the Laws of Time, but the Brigadier politely declines, despite it promising an end to his pain. It’s masterfully written, and given
all that the characters are put through here, incredibly touching.
The real talking point of this one though is Compassion’s astonishing transformation into a new breed of living TARDIS. Reading this series of novels today, fully cognisant of what was to come, I was able to appreciate the clues littered throughout the preceding novels, but at the time of publication Compassion’s fate was the ultimate bombshell, and Cornell executes it so skilfully. As the novel opens, Compassion is living a human life, ticking kisses and cats off a list in an attempt to satisfy the Doctor’s attempts to make her more human. And, almost in spite of herself, she is becoming more human. But then Cavis shoots her. Then she falls. And then she flies.
Compassion’s tragedy is that
she was never meant to be. The
Doctor adapted her receiver to
pick up signals exclusively from
the TARDIS, hoping that his ship
could somehow make her more
human, when in fact all he was
doing was opening Compassion’s
essence up to the TARDIS’ block
transfer computations, instigating
a critical change that would not
only transform his companion’s
very being but give rise to a whole new species of TARDIS; a race destined to be enslaved by the increasingly-militaristic Romana and her Time Lord followers.
At the time of the novel’s publication, I wasn’t sold on the idea of a morally-grey incarnation of Romana presiding over Gallifrey, but this time around I’m not so sure. With her chinoise pyjamas, clogs, green eyes, coal-black flapper fringe and tattooed ankle, she certainly has the bearing of a Romana, and having listened to her character darken over the course of
Big Finish’s Gallifrey series and seen the Time Lords’ fall from grace as depicted in The End of Time... well, let’s just say that her “shocking” heel turn in this book now feels rather
in keeping, to say the least. Though Doctor Who’s various spin-off ranges seem to have
opposing views on continuity, they all see the Time Lords fall so far and so fast; casualties
of war, but not necessarily victims of it.
And in the novel’s final chapters, Cornell really lets rip with Romana as a reluctant villainess. Putting her and the Doctor head to head makes for an electrifying sequence, and dovetails beautifully into the novel’s deliciously inspiring end.
“Are you really telling me that you’re prepared to go on
the run from your own people in this ‘stolen TARDIS?’”
The novel’s finale is incredibly uplifting, even celebratory. It’s evident from reading the final passages that Cornell relished writing every word, setting the Doctor up once again as a wanderer on the run from his own people in a stolen TARDIS with a mind of its own... and in this case, a soul too. Fair dues, there’s a real sting there as we feel Compassion’s pain and terror as her life changes beyond all recognition, but we are also privy to her delight – and the Doctor’s – at the birth of something truly special.
Copyright © E.G. Wolverson 2010
E.G. Wolverson has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988 to be identified as the author of this work.
Though the Brigadier remains in Avalon at the conclusion of this novel, perhaps to begin a romance with Mab, The King of Terror confirms that he returns to Earth at some point afterwards.
For Romana, who is portrayed as being in (at least) her third incarnation here, presumably these events take place after Zagreus and the Big Finish spin-off series Gallifrey (following which Romana must have, somehow, saved or ‘restored’ her planet and reclaimed her Presidency).
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