Doctor Who: The Coming Of The Terraphiles book review

Legendary sci-fi and fantasy author Michael Moorcock lends his imaginative talents to the Doctor Who universe, with the novel The Coming Of The Terraphiles. Here’s James’ review...

Yes, the rumours were true. Michael Moorcock, the grandmaster of sci-fi/fantasy and the inspiration for writers as diverse as Michael Chabon, China Mieville and Alan Moore has, indeed, been corralled into turning his not inconsiderable literary talents to the task of writing BBC Books first ‘serious’ Doctor Who novel since the series returned to our screens in 2005.

Hang on, I hear you cry. What do you mean by ‘serious’? Well, that’s open to debate, but clearly BBC Books is not selling this project as just your average tie-in novel. For a start, it’s a different size and length to the standard books in the Who range and has a price point that is considerably higher. On this evidence, the message from BBC Books is loud and clear: this is not your average Who book. This is important!

Which is ironic, as clearly Moorcock didn’t get that memo. If anything, The Coming Of The Terraphiles finds the author having a bit of a lark about and working in a light, almost playful register that’s far more in keeping with the work of writers such as P.G Wodehouse and Douglas Adams than the darker tone of some of his more recent work. 

It’s a choice that allows Moorcock’s book to play his story as a strange, yet entertaining hybrid of the author’s own Jerry Cornelius novels (another version of Cornelius even makes an appearance here in the form of intergalactic pirate, Ironface) with the more Bob Holmes/Douglas Adams-inspired moments that both Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat have indulged in over the years.

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If you’re a fan of classic series stories like The Sunmakers and The Pirate Planet, or their modern day equivalents such as Gridlock, The Beast Below or The End Of The World, then you’ll enjoy Moorcock’s tale. If you don’t, well, you’d probably be wise to give the book a wide berth.

The plot of the novel finds the Doctor and companion Amy Pond working undercover amongst a group of the aforementioned Terraphiles, dedicated followers of old Earth history and customs, who are taking part in the ‘Terraphile All-Galaxy Renaissance Re-enactments Interworld Series Tournament’, a sporting competition where teams of assorted Terraphiles compete against each other in a series of re-enacted old Earth ‘sports’ for the prize of the fabled Arrow of Artemis.

Unfortunately for the Doctor, some old enemies of his, the multiversal criminals Frank/Freddie Force and the Anti-Matter Men, want to steal the Arrow and use its power to destroy the multiverse forever.  Inevitably, the question arises: can the Doctor and Amy stop them in time or will all of creation collapse under the weight of multiversal collapse? (I’ll let you guess the outcome.)

As entertaining, well written and amusing as Moorcock’s book is (and it is all of those things), the one nagging problem that lingers throughout is that this story doesn’t quite feel right. Undoubtedly, it’s a brave move to turn such a controlled and well-known property as Doctor Who over to such a big name author and to give him, within reason, a free hand with the story he’s telling, but certain things just don’t work.

For a start, Moorcock’s handling of both the Doctor and Amy is, to put it mildly, a little different to their TV personas. As written by Moorcock, the Eleventh Doctor comes across as a slightly more in control and less clumsy version of the character we see on TV, which inevitably ends up robbing him of a lot of the quirkier and endearing aspects that Matt Smith has added to the character over time. In fact, it makes one wonder if this book was begun before Smith was cast, as the portrayal here seems to default to an archetypal version of the character that, like the story itself, seems to be very Tom Baker in tone.

Faring much worse under Moorcock’s pen is Amy Pond. Aside from a few random mentions of meeting the Doctor as a child, the odd Leadworth reference and descriptions of her beautiful red hair, Amy is pretty unrecognisable from the woman we’ve watched over the course of series 5.

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In this story, Amy’s dialogue could just as easily be said by Rose Tyler, Martha Jones, Peri Brown, Sarah Jane Smith or Jo Grant and you’ll barely notice the difference and, while some might say ‘no change there, then’, it is distracting. This Amy has none of the spike or brittleness that we associate from Karen Gillan’s performance and it leaves the whole Doctor/companion axis in the book feeling somewhat anaemic.

Another major issue that the book wrestles with is a slight lack of focus and urgency to the plot. Moorcock may create a wide-ranging universe and enjoy bathing in the odd details, quirky characters and surreal asides, but the best Who stories don’t generally dwell on those aspects. This tension between novelistic approach and the peculiarities of writing Doctor Who, which in some regards is almost a genre in and of itself, is a prevalent one throughout the course of the book and is only really resolved when the Doctor comes to the centre of the narrative and becomes the driving force of the story we expect him to. 

However, despite the various caveats raised, this is an entertaining book. There’s real wit, imagination and, perhaps surprisingly, warmth on display. Moorcock is clearly having enormous fun playing with some of the toys within the Whoniverse and this is most obvious in how he handles the repeated use of the Judoon.

In his hands the Judoon move on from just being the gruff, officious bovver boys of old (although that angle is still present and correct) and instead become quite sweet and lovable. In a way, it has echoes of how the Ood were developed and it certainly makes one think that there’s a lot more mileage in the Judoon than just having them pop up once in a while to grunt and say Flo-Bo-Cro.

Ironically (well this is a Michael Moorcock novel after all), the way to read this book and garner the most enjoyment is to simply treat it as a Who story set on a parallel world. An archetypal tale about an eternal champion and his companion engaged in a heroic battle to save the universe from an encroaching cataclysm that threatens the existence of all things. In this world, continuity is unimportant, consistency is for the birds and imagination is king. How very Michael Moorcock. How very Doctor Who.

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4 stars
Doctor Who: The Coming Of The Terraphiles is out now and available from the Den Of Geek Store.

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Rating:

4 out of 5