THIS STORY TAKES
PLACE A FEW YEARS
"THE ANCESTOR CELL"
AND AROUND TWENTY
OFFICIAL BBC 'EIGHTH
RELEASED IN AUGUST
The late 19TH century
- the age of reason,
of enlightenment, of
The mine is worked
out, jobs are FEW,
and a crack has
opened across the
moors that reaches
into the depths of
THOUGH: Lord Urton
is preparing to open
the mine AGAIN; the
Society for Physical
Research is interested
in the fissure; Roger
Nepath and his sister
are exhibiting their
collection of mystic
People are dying.
AND Then, walking out
of the wilderness, A
STRANGER ARRIVES: a
man with no name, no
Only HE can unravel
the mysteries; only
HE can UNDERSTAND
the forces that are
gathering; only HE
can hope to fight
them. Only HE knows
that this is just the
beginning of the end
of the world.
The Burning couldn’t have been endowed with a more apposite title. For better
or worse, the preceding Ancestor Cell had purged the range of all the continuity trappings that had divided its readership clean in two, culminating in a cataclysm that obliterated the entire constellation of Kasterborous, its native Time Lords, time-travelling voodoo terrorists Faction Paradox and, apparently, the Doctor’s memories. But such a sluice is as nothing when compared to the cleansing fires of The Burning, the opening instalment of Justin Richards’ reign as range editor, as well as one of BBC Books’ most successful story arcs.
Richards’ novel made no bones about being a new beginning, but even so I don’t think that anyone expected it to be quite as resounding a reboot as it ultimately proved to be. Indeed, the only substantive link that The Burning offers to the thirty-six novels that it follows is the Doctor himself, and even here Richards manages to present the titular Time Lord in a new and alluring way. Richards’ rendering of the Doctor is perhaps even more different than it would have been had he actually regenerated. Stripped of his memories, his enemies, his companions and (in an obvious sense, at least) his TARDIS, the amnesiac eccentric that carries this book bares very little semblance to the man that we’ve come to know. But it’s
still him – absolutely, demonstrably, emphatically. And that’s why The Burning is a work
of unmitigated genius, both creatively and commercially.
Giving this novel a 2010 airing has been more of an illuminating experience than I’d initially thought, largely because it deals with the destruction of the Doctor’s homeworld in a manner completely contrary that of the revived television series. When Russell T Davies introduced us to Christopher Eccleston’s ninth Doctor, he was a man scarred by his actions in the Last Great Time War; a man effectively defined by them. These wounds would then be sported right through the David Tennant years, and even Matt Smith’s Eleven will have a little bit of salt poured into them from time to time. The Burning, however, does everything that it can
to separate itself from the Doctor’s killing of his own kind, to the extent that the act isn’t even mentioned – and why would it be? It is, quite literally, forgotten.
Yet The Burning’s influence is clearly there to be seen in the new television series. Towards the end of Tennant’s time, seminal stories like The Waters of Mars would examine who the Doctor is without a human being by his side, but we saw it first here, and in my view a little more gracefully. Davies would even borrow the idea of having of a time traveller wake up in the 19th century and have to live all the way through the 20th before time allows him to cross paths with his companions. And who can blame him? It’s an astonishing idea, and one that in 2000 opened the door to a glut of captivating tales, almost every one of them embodying Doctor Who literature at its best.
This intriguing premise also allowed the author to make The Burning a perfect jumping-on point for readers, be they those who’d given up on the range and were returning to the fold, or those coming to it completely afresh. No prior knowledge is assumed of the reader here as there is none to be had – the Doctor is a man without a past, a man without a home. All he has to his name is a burning intellect that he can’t account for, an odd little blue box that seems to be growing, and a yellowing note from some German chap suggesting that they should meet up in St Louis… in 2001. Several years have passed since the Doctor woke
up on that old steam train in 1888 at the end of The Ancestor Cell, his mind a blank, and
the reader feels every last one of them. The Whoniverse has moved on.
Admittedly, The Burning is slow
to start, particularly given that it’s
such a compact piece of work,
yet the unhurried pace suits the
story well. Rather than rush into
the drama headlong, Richards is
able to ‘waste’ words painting an
aromatic picture of a small 19th
century mining village, and even populating it with a few throwaway but ultimately memorable characters that add nothing to the narrative, but imbue the book with a Target-like sense of depth and detail. Richards then toys with his readers’ expectations, presenting a number of ‘possible’ pseudonymous Doctors before quietly having the genuine article make a casual remark from amidst a number of anonymous faces around a dinner table. Measured it may be, but it’s a devastatingly effective device, for once the Doctor has arrived The Burning suddenly becomes unputdownable.
An enigma even to himself, the Doctor of this novel is as inscrutable and as alien as we had seen him since An Unearthly Child. Without a human companion to temper him, for the first time in more than thirty-five years The Burning presented us with a protagonist who could be every bit as frightening as the evils that he rallies against. One only need look at the novel’s callous conclusion to see danger emanating from the ‘new’ eighth Doctor just like it did from the first Doctor and that rock.
“You talk of science offering an explanation... but it is meaning that is important.”
What I like most about this portrayal of the Doctor though is that he has all the knowledge,
but none of the answers. The Burning sees him ruminate on the old “science or sorcery” argument, free from the prejudice that comes with the confidence of knowing. It sees him debate pre-determinism, Darwinism, and even Greek philosophy with a wonderfully-drawn clerical half-companion, whose religion doesn’t prevent him opening his mind to science. In a way, it’s quite fitting that many of this novel’s most memorable scenes are those that take place around a fire, the amnesiac Doctor philosophising long into the night.
The plot itself is impressive, but understated; The Burning is very much of the ‘pilot’ ilk, its menace simply being there to be fought, rather than to dominate the proceedings. Richards presents us with a living magma monster made from a sort of ‘memory mineral’ - something to give one pause when lazing on a memory foam mattress whilst reading the book! – and a Theodore Maxtible-type human agent who’s entered into a Faustian pact with it, albeit with a little more depth and credibility. However, it would be a mistake to dismiss this narrative as being tame or even traditional - like everything else in this book, it’s perfectly balanced, the perfect complement to the characterisation.
As The Burning ends, the Doctor collects his mysterious little box and wanders off into the sunset. It’ll be a couple of decades before we see him again, yet there is no reassuring fast-forward to 2001; no Fitz bookend to interrupt the flow. Richards wants to figure out who his man is before he blasts him into space and time. And, should you ever find yourself reading this tight, perfectly-weighted novel, I dare say that you will too, because by the final page of this smouldering little paperback, the fires have done their work. Now cometh the proverbial Phoenix…
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.
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