The first of Puffin’s eleven e-Books, A Big Hand For The Doctor sees a pre-Unearthly Child First Doctor and Susan engaging in a battle with Soul Pirates in the skies of London in 1900.
Eoin Colfer, acclaimed author of the Artemis Fowl series (and internationally vilified author of Another Thing…) presents William Hartnell’s Doctor in a scenario that evokes Steven Moffat’s “Dark Fairy Tale” approach, right down to the alien objects hidden in the clouds above Victorian London. While the tone is that of a playful children’s fantasy, the concepts within remain those of enjoyable science-fiction. The resolution involves quick thinking, a computer interface and some implausibly fast typing. The First Doctor is surprisingly mobile throughout, especially considering what happens to his hand before the story begins.
Once you get over the concept of the First Doctor, whimsy, and pop culture references, Colfer’s characterisation of the cantankerous old Time Lord (two-hearted in this story – controversial) works really very well indeed; the Doctor is not a happy man, but a brilliant one. Images are conjured up of Hartnell sitting in a tall chair, reading The Order Of The Phoenix with Susan (then standing and throwing it on the fire, exclaiming that he refuses to read anything that hasn’t been edited properly).
Because this is pre-Ian and Barbara, the Doctor is a more reluctant hero. You get a sense of what has gone before, but only an inkling; both those with and without knowledge of the Doctor and Susan’s origins will be intrigued. Indeed, the relationship between the Doctor and his foe hints at the scheming implied in 1988’s Remembrance Of The Daleks.
And considering their seemingly rubbish name, the Soul Pirates are memorably horrible. Children may have nightmares. They’re essentially the bad giants from The BFG crossed with space pirates. The fates of the children they capture are surprisingly gruesome. The only downside is that we barely get to meet any who aren’t incredibly thick.
Though Susan isn’t in it much, the depiction of the Doctor’s relationship with his granddaughter is very nicely done. Further family members are mentioned, one in enough detail to make me wonder if Colfer was familiar with the work of Lance Parkin (writer of many popular spin-off stories). If you read this story and then watch The Dalek Invasion Of Earth, you may be in need of a hug.
Finishing on a short, sweet coda, A Big Hand For The Doctor is a satisfying bout of adventure, although its tone is one that takes a little bit of getting used to if you’ve seen Hartnell’s TV incarnation. After the third chapter I found the Doctor’s inner monologue worked well with his televisual counterpart, and enjoyed the rest of the story accordingly.
Hopefully some of those children things people keep going on about will read this or have it read to them, and ask to see what else the Grumpy Magic Doctor got up to.
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