THIS STORY TAKES
PLACE AROUND TWENTY
YEARS AFTER THE NOVEL
"THE BURNING," AND
EIGHTEEN YEARS PRIOR
OFFICIAL BBC 'EIGHTH
RELEASED IN SEPTEMBER
1918. The world is
at war. A terrible
conflict that has
left no one untouched.
Casualties of War
When the idea of having the Doctor marooned on Earth for the duration of the
20th century was first mooted, one of the settings that I’m sure will have been top of the list
to explore is that of the Great War. The faux-War Games of Patrick Troughton’s swansong notwithstanding, prior to the publication of Casualties of War, Doctor Who had never really delved into the mustard gas madness of the War to End All Wars; had never really sought
to subsume its many manifold terrors and subject them to science-fiction spin.
Steve Emmerson’s first Doctor Who novel does a fittingly fetid job of capturing the Great War’s infamous horrors and then presenting them in a way that feels neither gratuitous nor clichéd. Set entirely within the confines of a rural village in North Yorkshire, the effects of the war are felt through consequence rather than gore; tragedy rather than terror. This approach invites some superlative characterisation, whilst also ensuring that the principle horror of the tale isn’t eclipsed by the altogether more tangible terrors of the trenches. It also has the add-ed benefit of making the story feel like something approaching quintessential Who, despite it being anything but.
Emmerson’s plot concerns an apparently supernatural force at work in Hawkswick Hall, a convalescent home for shell-shocked soldiers in the north of England. By night, the village
of Hawkswick is haunted by the spectres of wounded servicemen, and come morning both domestic pets and livestock are habitually found slain. The author’s polished prose paints each and every horror in an unsettling level of detail, his words somehow capturing not only the immediate dread conjured by such things, but also the sickening sense of waste flowing
from the events that precipitated them.
And the author’s characterisation is equally sublime. Hawkswick is populated with a number of well-drawn, three-dimensional characters, including affable local bobby Constable Albert Briggs, crabby farmer Bill Cromby, and misty-eyed midwife Mary Minnett. Each character is charming and credible, Emmerson even presenting some characters’ dialogue in full-blown Yorkshire dialect, rather leave their inflections to the imaginations of his readers. Dialect dialogue is always tricky to settle in print, but when handled as expertly as it is here, it can imbue a piece with a real sense of flavour.
However, as was the case with The Burning
before it, it is in the author’s rendering of the
itinerant, amnesiac Time Lord that Casualties
of War really excels. Having assumed – either
honestly or otherwise - the mantle of “the Man
from the Ministry”, here the Doctor seeks to
unravel the mystery of Hawkswick... whilst its
resident midwife looks to unravel the mystery
Much of the narrative dwells on Mary’s keen romantic interest in the Doctor and the hesitant manner in which he appears to court it, allowing Emmerson to call into question what fans of the series generally take as read. Is the Doctor asexual by nature, or by choice? If he thinks that he’s human here, then why wouldn’t he be subject to love’s tender mercies? Of course, Emmerson neatly circumvents having to provide a definite answer to any of these absorbing questions, but in my view Casualties of War is all the stronger for it. I love the ambiguity in the moment where the Doctor tells Mary that he’s taking her to bed, apparently with amorous intent, only to anxiously make his excuses outside her bedroom and then retire to his. Is he pent by his innate alien Doctorishness, or by normal human doubts and weaknesses? It is this doubt, coupled with Mary’s own lack of romantic history, that makes this book such an affecting read; this doubt that makes Mary’s epilogous letter to the Doctor excruciating to bear. It’s a real testament to Emmerson’s characterisation of both the Doctor and Mary that, despite everything that we know about the Doctor – everything that we value about him - the reader still laments their divergent fates.
“I cannot believe you were blind to my intentions. I do not believe for all your
strengths and complexities of nature you have an Achilles’ heel in Love...”
Overall, Casualties of War is a beautiful dichotomy of a novel, its author broaching the many horrors of love and war with analogous aplomb. In my view it’s even more successful than The Burning in how it revitalises the reader’s interest in the Doctor, and it’s certainly much more riveting in terms of its central narrative. Furthermore, just as intended, one could pick up this novel without any prior knowledge of preceding novels or even of Doctor Who, and enjoy it for exactly what it is – a sinister and stirring story that never fails to rouse.
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.
This novel takes place approximately twenty years after the events of The Burning. The dialogue suggests that the Doctor has been keeping his nose clean since those events, though this seems unlikely given his predilection for trouble.
The tone of this novel suggests that the Doctor is posing as a “Man from the Ministry”, however Wolfsbane would later confirm that the Doctor does indeed have government contacts, and that as such he might well have been working for the Ministry in this story, either officially or otherwise.
Following these events, the Doctor would visit the South Seas investigating the rumoured sighting of a dragon in China before returning to England in or around 1936, prior to the events of Wolfsbane.
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