I may find reviewing this book tricky. Tricky because I really haven’t been keeping track of the fiction based on the new series – to be honest I got overwhelmed by new-Who when Big Finish started releasing faster than I could keep up. Tricky also because I’m clearly not the target audience.
My first instinct when approaching Autonomy by Daniel Blythe is to compare it with his New Adventure The Dimension Riders, which I read when it came out in 1993. I’m aware that this is ridiculous – the two books are worlds apart. On the other hand, perhaps I’m a good person to be reviewing these books. I had no idea how they would work, what feeling they would convey or how they would relate to the new series. I am, in short, a fresh pair of eyes.
Autonomy, features the tenth Doctor travelling alone and encountering, as the title suggests, the Autons and their controller-constructor-gestalt mind the Nestene. This time, the plastic beasties are using Hyperville, a giant shopping/entertainment complex in 2013 as a base for operations. The adventure is set over the course of an evening.
Kate Maguire, a journalist posing as a prospective employee of Sir Gerry Hobbes-Mayhew, the self-made billionaire in charge of Hyperville, is investigating the complex. Meanwhile, the Doctor arrives and is immediately thrown into a series of encounters with Autons infesting a variety of zones in the shopping centre.
These zones give the story a variety of settings, from a Ghost Train to Sherwood Forest to the Wild West. It also allows for a variety of different ‘makes’ of Auton: Robin Hood, cowboys, even the White Witch from Narnia. The Nestene are revealed to be using the ambitious but coldly sinister Miss Devonshire and the Pertwee-era classic human quisling Max Carson to invade the Earth and repopulate it with plastic meanies.
The twist of the novel, one which distinguishes it from previous Auton stories is that the Nestene plan has been in operation for many years, and has allowed them to create Auton/Human ‘sleeper’ hybrids: Autons who aren’t aware that they are Autons until they are awakened as the plan reaches a critical point.
Ultimately, as ever, the Doctor defeats the Nestene by… by… Well, actually, I’m not entirely sure what he does, but it involves something to do with anti-plastic, first used to underwhelming effect in the new series episode Rose.
I have to say I rather enjoyed Autonomy. I’ve always felt the Autons were underused, even abused, in Rose, their appearance being simply a hook on which to hang the new characters and to introduce the pacing and style of the Russell T Davies rebooted series.
In this book, Blythe’s inventive approach to the Autons is reminiscent of Robert Holmes’ original stories. Particularly satisfying are the characters of Paul Kendrick and Shaneeqi, a version of Posh and Becks who turn out to be sleeper Autons. This is clearly an attempt by Blythe to satirise the modern trend of X-Factor celebrity-ness by presenting a pro-footballer and pop singer who are literally lacking in life and soul.
Blythe wrings an unexpectedly complex degree of emotion out of this situation as Shaneeqi gradually realises that her memories and life have been empty and worthless, constructed by the Nestene consciousness. This culminates as her emotional, ersatz-humanity wrestles with her Auton tendency to zap ‘organics’ with her floppy hand laser gun thingy during the climax of the story.
The temporary companion, Kate, is well presented and given a neat back-story after an inventive twisty-turny prologue. I can’t help thinking, however, that a lot of the characters and ideas in the book seem overly reminiscent of the rebooted series. The undercover reporter, for example is a cliché so clichéd that even Davies parodied it in Smith And Jones. Along with Kate, the Doctor is assisted by two kids, Chantelle and Reece, whose presence seems to be solely in order to give a younger perspective on the Auton menace.
I also found that the pacing of the novel, clearly designed to emulate the pacing of the series, didn’t quite feel right. I can’t help thinking that the joy of a novel, compared to a television episode, is the freedom and scope to present a much more complex, epic story and a more measured pace. Scenes that feature the Doctor running around endless fighting Autons, while excitingly kinetic and energetic on screen become, conversely slow and repetitive in word. I had the same feeling with the Doctor’s dialogue.
Blythe captures Tennant’s verbal quirks perfectly, but again, while on screen they are, sometimes at least, amusing and endearing, on the page they seem convoluted and self-consciously eccentric. Maybe this is a sign that I’m just not young enough to get the most out of the book.
While this may be the case, Autonomy does tackle complex issues about modern society in a way that makes them accessible without over-simplification.
For me, the aspect that saves the book and kept me reading was the fact that I became convinced that Blythe had been reading J G Ballard. As in Ballard’s final work of fiction, Kingdom Come, the setting of a vast shopping complex is shown to be a microcosm of a global trend towards faceless, mindless violence. Ballard’s book connected the modern culture of consumerism and the corresponding desire for shopping with a broader satire/warning of blindly following reactionary politics. Blythe, understandably, simplifies this and neatly injects the Autons into the flow of his satire.
In Autonomy, Blythe manages to multi-task two narratives, the first being the traditional Doctor Who base-under-siege story paced, to my mind, a little awkwardly, like an episode of the new series.
The second narrative seems to be an attempt to address something a little more serious, to present a warning about the dangers of celebrity.
For this reason, I give Autonomy three stars.
Doctor Who: Autonomy is out now.