The Undertaker’s Gift is Trevor Baxendale’s second Torchwood novel, after the impressive if somewhat over-too-soon Something In The Water. Where the previous novel in the series, Risk Assessment by James Goss, was a whimsical, fast moving tour de force in the world of Torchwood, Baxendale takes an entirely different tack, presenting us with a much darker, more oppressive and dangerous interpretation of Torchwood.
The Hokrala Corporation are intent on suing Torchwood for mishandling the 21st Century and Captain Jack has to put up with an assassination attempt, whilst tracking down a device called The Undertaker’s Gift and handling a lethal creature of pure energy that is being held captive in The Hub. Captain Jack, seemingly very reflective of his own immortality, is also realising that a team of three is far too small to handle the increased rift activity and, with the assassin on his trail, he’s becoming more and more paranoid and protective towards his two team members.
As if this wasn’t enough, we’ve got evil pitbullfrogs, stroppy, hoodie wearing blowfish, a cameo by Kathy Swanson, the detective from the season one story They Keep Killing Suzi, and a reference to UNIT that left me wondering if UNIT has more authority in relation to Torchwood than we’ve seen before. Top that all off with an underground crypt containing something that caused two characters to scream in terror and alien creatures called The Already Dead who despise the living and may bring around the end of the world (or Cardiff).
There’s enough complexity here to keep the story moving along without it becoming weighed down by its own intricacy. On top of that, there are some really fantastic ideas – a parasite that will make your skin crawl, a coffin containing something that is horrific and heartbreaking, and a revelation about a lethal alien that borders on poetic. The ideas may not sound 100% original, but Baxendale carries them off with such quality that they would actually work on screen and leave you chilled.
In Undertaker’s Gift, we start with a funeral and the death motif carries right through the story. We’re treated to near death experiences, death of incidental characters that we actually start to care about, even a one-off acquaintance of Captain Jack has a rather unexpected demise that leaves its mark on the good Captain. “The one thing he can never have… had become the driving force in everything he did,” we learn about Captain Jack. It’s true, everywhere around him, very much like The Doctor, death follows as his only true and constant companion.
The story boils down to a near Earth shattering conclusion and a novel twist on the reset switch idea that has been much derided by many Doctor Who fans. Despite his crafty method of explaining things, it still comes down to an Earth in peril cannot be destroyed, especially in the context of what comes after in Children Of Earth. It’s always going to be a weakness of the novels, but it’s one that Baxendale overcomes. He makes it clear that the ‘reset’ leaves the Torchwood staff remembering what happened, including their own suffering, and that some things should never be forgotten.
Baxendale, for the most part, has captured the idea of Torchwood – a science fiction drama for an adult audience. He has done this without excessive bad language and pointless sex scenes, opting to give us a richly written, dark tale with moments that are quite, quite unsettling. There is sex, but it’s relegated to a dream sequence and it makes sense within the context of the story. There is bad language, but it doesn’t feel shoe horned in or unnecessary.
So, why only four stars? Yes, the novel is good.Yes, Baxendale’s writing flows with tension. It’s definitely worth reading and doesn’t have the rushed feel that the ending to his previous Torchwood novel had. It all came down the ‘reset’ idea in the end. I’m not a fan of it as a device and, whilst Baxendale almost manages to escape the ‘everything goes back to normal just in time for tea’ annoyance of resetting the story, it is still a reset!
Torchwood: The Undertaker’s Gift is out now.