Around this time last year, BBC Books released The Coming Of The Terraphiles, an Eleventh Doctor novel written by Michael Moorcock. The book was aimed at older science-fiction readers, and its story proceeded in continuity with the author’s own oeuvre of science fiction novels. It also cost ten pounds more than any of the titles in the regular range of Eleventh Doctor novels.
The Silent Stars Go By is slightly cheaper, for those concerned by list price, but I don’t think the point of this fledgling special range is for fans to quibble about whether or not it’s worth waiting until the sales. It’s a Christmas gift of a book, essentially.
It’s a handy stocking filler for your young Doctor Who fan, or a Secret Santa gift for the Whovian in your workplace, but nobody’s going to quibble about value for money too much. It’s handy that author Dan Abnett has the nous to deliver an enjoyable tale with the Eleventh Doctor, but I struggle to see that there’s much in here that he couldn’t have done in the more regular range.
The Doctor, Amy and Rory are planning on a quiet Christmas, in contemporary Leadworth, with no unnecessary running around and screaming. As per usual, the TARDIS doesn’t take them where they want to go, instead landing them on the planet Hereafter in the midst of its own winter festival.
In Narnian fashion, the current winter is lasting an awfully long time, and each successive winter is worse than the one before. The Morphan colonists subsist on what they can produce themselves as they wait for terraforming procedures to make their planet as hospitable as Earth used to be. However, their livestock is being killed, and several of their number have been taken, by forces unknown.
Paranoia reigns with the arrival of the unexpected visitors, and the Doctor has his work cut out for him when he realises that his old adversaries, the Ice Warriors, are behind the climate changes on the planet. Hereafter is the most Earth-like planet they can find, and they aim to make it their own, irrespective of the danger to the Morphans.
There’s a decent groundswell of support for the Ice Warriors to come back in the revived series of Doctor Who. Russell T Davies once said in an interview that he would have liked to bring the reptilians back, and they earned a mention in the 2009 special, The Waters Of Mars. They’re green men from Mars, but in the true tradition of Who, their history is nothing so simple.
In the course of their four appearances in the series’ history, they’ve worked both against the Doctor and, by the time of the Peladon stories, as a force for the peace-keeping Galactic Federation. They have a complex code of honour that makes them more negotiable than the other big hitters in the show’s rogues gallery, like the Daleks, the Cybermen or the Sontarans.
Still, until an on-screen return actually happens, we have Abnett’s version, and he writes them very well. His descriptions are unmistakably Ice Warriors, and yet to a reader who has never seen them in black-and-white Patrick Troughton adventures, or tangling with Jon Pertwee on Peladon, they come to life, right off the page. Abnett’s prose makes them fearsome and real – it’s an astute update of a classic Doctor Who creature.
Even their weaponry is updated, with vivid descriptions of how the air warps and bulges with its sonic blast. It’s a nice touch when even a near miss is powerful enough to give Rory a nosebleed. Inevitably, the three main characters have to be split up in some way or another, but the most effective passage of the book finds Rory running for his life from a rampaging Ice Warrior. It’s very well written, and the action is as pulse-pounding as words on the page can be.
It’s unfortunate then, that the story itself runs out of steam after a few early encounters with the green giants. Once they start having discussions with people, their threat feels somewhat diminished. Additionally, the Ice Warriors don’t seem enough to sustain the narrative for upwards of 300 pages, and we eventually see an even bigger threat to the Morphans and Hereafter coming in, quite late in the day.
The Morphans themselves are retro-futuristic creations – a relatively primitive human society existing on an alien planet. They’re intergalactic villagers, substituting God for the mysterious Guide (“Guide help us”) and deeply distrusting strangers.
This allows for one of Abnett’s numerous twists on what we know about the series, which are always clever and inventive. In this instance, we see the Doctor try to infiltrate the Morphans using the psychic paper, and find out what happens when an illiterate person is shown writing on it. Long story short, it winds up with the Doctor and Amy temporarily banged up.
The Doctor is pretty well-characterised, and Abnett captures the fast rhythm of his eleventh incarnation’s speech, but I’ve always found some of the most important aspects of Matt Smith’s portrayal to be physical, which don’t translate quite as well. This leaves some of his scenes with the Ice Warriors feeling like they could have taken place with another Doctor instead.
The chapter titles in The Silent Stars Go By, and of course, the title of the book itself, all come from Christmas carols and hymns, but the overall feeling I got from the book was that it wasn’t hugely festive. Doctor Who on Christmas Day is usually a big blockbuster, and while it might only be my personal preference, that’s when I like Voyage Of The Damned much more than The End Of Time Part One.
The early promise of The Silent Stars Go By is in its similarity to some of the themes addressed in Steven Moffat’s episode from last year, A Christmas Carol, with a group of colonists, celebrating with optimism in the bleak midwinter. The winter festival stuff is pretty much disposable, giving way to a romping Ice Warrior confrontation thereafter.
The increased page length really stretches the limits of the story, and honestly, I wouldn’t say it was worth the inflated list price as a personal purchase. On the other hand, it’s packaged in such a way that it’s meant for the Christmas market, and there’s enough to recommend it as a gift for someone else.
If you receive this book, wrapped up in shiny paper on Christmas morning, I would say that it’s worth a read on the merit of the story’s strong characterisations, Abnett’s literacy in all things Doctor Who, and his smart revival of the Ice Warriors as a credible menace. Perhaps there’s a perfect Christmas special to be had, where the Ice Warriors are front and centre once more. In the meantime, this is close enough, and at least it’s sort of festive.
The Silent Stars Go By is out now and available from the Den Of Geek store.