Saturday nights are great again, or so has been the case for the last few weeks. The Doctor is back on BBC One, in the shape of bandy-legged nutjob Matt Smith. With his debut on TV comes a somewhat inevitable range of spin-off novels for the Eleventh Doctor. One of the first three released, The Forgotten Army, sees the Doctor and his companion Amy Pond arrive in New York in 2010.
The Doctor has come to get food from the best burger van in time and space, but they’re distracted from the queue of Judoon and Graske by the escape of a polar woolly mammoth from the Museum of Natural History. It’s been perfectly preserved in ice for thousands of years, so how on Earth is it alive?
The answer lies with the vicious Vykoid army, made up of slave owners who’ve inadvertently been entrapped in an ice cap all those millennia, and consequently aren’t best pleased.
They’re also about seven centimetres tall, but that doesn’t stop them sweeping over the city like locusts, knocking out the phones, the power and all routes in or out. The Vykoids are finally going to enact General Erik’s dastardly plan, unless the Doctor and Amy can stop their near-invisible enemy.
A problem I had with some of the Tenth Doctor novels is that, over the course of 250 pages, something of David Tennant’s voice as the character can be lost. It’s almost like writers try to consciously emulate ‘things the Tenth Doctor might say’ rather than have him doing and saying things that advance the story. Not that those novels were poorly written, but I often struggled to entirely believe the character the way I did when he was on TV.
I anticipated similar problems with the Eleventh Doctor, especially as so much of Matt Smith’s portrayal is to do with his appearance and his body language. Thankfully, my fears were allayed by Brian Minchin’s excellent prose and dialogue for the character.
Minchin has been close to the TV show in the past, working as a script editor for both Doctor Who and Torchwood, and his debut novel for the BBC Books range is suitably close to the tone of Steven Moffat’s new era.
The miniscule antagonists are just like something out of a fairytale, seeing as how that’s the line the BBC is giving on the tone of Series 5. The Vykoids are still deliciously villainous, of course, and there’s a definite sci-fi twist to the fairytale leanings. Think Gulliver’s Travels mashed up with The Day The Earth Stood Still, with just a dash of Invasion Of The Bodysnatchers in the latter half of the book.
There is still that problem of writers not having seen any of the new series before they sit down to write these novels. Instead they’re given scripts to read and press releases to digest in their characterisation, and so Amy Pond in the novel adheres to that promiscuity that Karen Gillan promised a lot more closely than any of her TV appearances thus far. She’s flirtatious and even more cheeky than on the show, despite a few references to her fiancée back home, whose identity is also confirmed herein.
Nevertheless, her double act with the Doctor is preserved. Indeed, at this relatively early point in the series, it’s enhanced.
Amy is certainly eager to assert her independence, here deciding that New York is the point in their relationship where she won’t be bossed around anymore, but retains an affection for the Doctor. That affection is entirely platonic, and as friends, they’re less Ross and Rachel and more like The Inbetweeners, affably taking the piss out of each other’s mistakes and dress sense as they race around the city.
The supporting characters, not usually the strong suit of this range of books, aren’t particularly memorable, but they are well-written. As in the series, children play a key role at a pivotal point, and there’s a lovely passage where a group of kids try to compare the Doctor to their traditional heroes like Iron Man (“I’m exactly like Iron Man. Only without the Iron.”) and Batman. Still, even the children are fairly roughly sketched, because, with the excellent Doctor-companion dynamic at the forefront, there’s less room to explore characters than in the solo Doctor run of last year.
The difficulty of reviewing The Forgotten Army is in the fact that it’s the first book I’ve read that features the Eleventh Doctor and Amy, and so I don’t have anything similar to compare it to. However, on the strengths of this, I’m eager to read the other two recent releases.
Minchin has the series’ sense of humour and characterisation down pat, and quite gleefully installs plot devices and set-pieces that the show’s budget probably wouldn’t cover.
Still, in the strictures of a 250 page book aimed at the show’s young audience, The Forgotten Army is very well put together. It’s quirky, funny and is definitely fit to bear the same brand as the reinvigorated series.
The absence of the series arc hanging over the story is also a plus, allowing you to focus on the Doctor and Amy instead. No crack-in-the-wall or Dalek amnesia here, just a fun, rip-roaring read that older fans can enjoy as much as their younger counterparts.
Doctor Who: The Forgotten Army is out now and available from the Den Of Geek Store.