THIS STORY TAKES
PLACE BETWEEN THE
OFFICIAL VIRGIN 'NEW
RELEASED IN FEBRUARY
There’s a rip in the
fabric of space and
time. Passenger ships
traffic lanes. In an
attempt to find out
who’s behind the
the Doctor and Ace
to be captured. But
when Bernice’s rescue
attempt goes wrong,
the travellers ARE
stranded in Ancient
Egypt, ACE struggles
to survive in A WORLD
3,000 years before
HER TIME. She manages
to find employment
as a bodyguard, And
then comes face to
face with the metal
horrors which have
pursued her through
time – the creatures
THAT she saw kill the
I thoroughly enjoyed Set Piece. What it lacks in plot, it more than makes up for in splendid character drama, and better still it’s all written in Kate Orman’s unique and stunning prose style, making it a completely different experience to reading a Doctor Who adventure from the pen of any other scribe. The well-researched and vividly detailed period settings, the hearts and minds of the characters, even the tongue-in-cheek quotations and chapter headings; it’s all indelibly Orman.
One of the things that I admired the most about Orman’s debut novel, The Left-Handed Hummingbird, was how she handled the Doctor, Ace, and Benny equally well; not merely
in terms of giving them a roughly equal share of the action, but also in how she explored
their thoughts and feelings about the events unfolding around them. In the same respect,
Set Piece is a triumph. In an ‘event novel’ such as this, I would half-expect Benny to be pushed out of the way so that the Doctor / Ace relationship could be milked dry, but our favourite archaeologist is not left out of the loop here. Her exploits in 18th century France
are just as interesting and as crucial to the plot as Ace’s adventures in ancient Egypt, or
the Doctor’s run-in with Kadiatu Lethbridge-Stewart. In fact, the scene where Benny and
Ace have to say goodbye to their sisterly relationship is actually more affecting than the Doctor / Ace farewell – as the book’s final chapter shows us, the Doctor and Ace will stay
in touch for a long time. However, that last chapter makes no mention of where Benny is.
The writer handles the big goodbye
itself wonderfully. Indeed, I don’t think
that we could have asked for a better exit for Ace. Having her marooned
in ancient Egypt for such a length of
time allows Ace to experience life on her own again, only this time she’s a
much wiser woman than when she
walked out on the Doctor on Heaven.
She has always been more than able to look after herself in any environment, but now she
knows the rules, so to speak. The Doctor even recognises signs of his own power in her – she has learned to see the “quasi-self-similar patterns” in history and, in Set Piece, she
goes on the journey from believing that because nothing lasts forever, nothing matters, to understanding that “even if it’s only a temporary arrangement, that makes it no less valuable”. When the Doctor leaves her in 18th century Paris to guard the temporal rift – with the ability to time-travel roughly two centuries back and forth – it’s because he now trusts her to do the right thing with that power, and she demonstrates she is worthy of his trust by deciding not
to save her friend Manisha from burning to death.
As I mentioned earlier though, the plot here isn’t faultless. A lot of the first half of the book hangs on the old idea that, shock horror, the Doctor is dead and his companions are left to fend for themselves. Of course he isn’t, and they are both more than capable anyway. ‘The Ship’ and its giant metal ants are both used well in a sensational sort of way – lots of blood and guts to hook the reader and then little to back it up. The second half of the book (after
the Doctor, Ace, Benny, and Kadiatu are all reunited) then focuses on their efforts to destroy the Ship and thus stop it destroying linear time.
Ironically, I criticised the plot of The Left-Handed Hummingbird for not being grand enough, yet here I think that Set Piece is too epic for its own good! The whole universe hanging by a thread is wonderful in stories like Logopolis, which have a suitably grim, funereal tone, but here it just isn’t necessary. I can see what Orman wanted to do – raising the stakes because Ace leaving is a big deal– but it doesn’t quite gel. What’s more, the Ship is too abstract a foe for the reader to really hate it, and worse still, if an everyday villain like the Ship truly has the potential to destroy the universe, it really negates the efforts of top-tier baddies such as the Master and the Daleks. For me, I found Kadiatu’s inclusion the most intriguing aspect of the narrative, especially as her agenda is so unclear. Where do her loyalties lie? Where (or, indeed, when) has she been since Transit? What will the knowledge of what she truly is do
In the end, Set Piece says goodbye to a character that seems to have been around longer than any other companion in the history of Doctor Who. She was magnificent on television and superb in the early New Adventures, and just as things were starting to get old she went off to fight the Daleks, and came back older. And harder. The writers of recent novels have certainly had their ups and downs with ‘New Ace’ – Cartmel, Cornell, Dicks, Lyons, McIntee and the like seemed to know how to handle her, whilst Blythe, Messingham, Richards and company struggled terribly. Those like Gatiss, Lane, and Russell just kept her out of the way in their books, and at times myself, I’d wished that they’d just write her out completely, but now that they have I can’t help but feel a little maudlin about it.
Copyright © E.G. Wolverson 2006
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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