This review contains spoilers.
Charlie Higson, perhaps best known as Mr Melons in Vic Reeves’ Big Night Out, has written a Doctor Who short story, and it’s really very good.
Set in a gap between TARDIS materialisations in Rose, Higson has concocted a clever, fun, fast-paced adventure that both evokes the Ninth Doctor’s series and makes the most of the prose medium. Even if writers struggled to match the possibilities of the increased budget in 2004, the written word allows an alien companion and impossible nightmare creatures to visit ancient Babylon.
Nev Fountain says this often, and he’s right: if you’re not writing Doctor Who on television, you might as well make the most of whatever medium you’ve got to play with. Higson builds some nice reveals, posing questions and answering them. By revealing the companion to be an alien gradually over the course of the story, it’s not only a nice reveal for plot reasons, but it’s a nice little character moment for the Doctor. At no point does he treat her any differently than he would a humanoid.
Eccleston’s Doctor is captured reasonably well, though sometimes the dialogue veers into ‘Generic Doctor’ territory and its hard to imagine the Ninth incarnation saying it. The resolution is one of those rare occasions where the Doctor says he’s going to do something, does it, and it works, but it’s not the main focus of the story. With a limited word count, it can’t be. This is happy to be at the high end of the ‘Fun Romp’ subcategory. It certainly has enough nice ideas in it to appeal to the imagination.
The main threat, Starmen, are a nice idea, for example: godlike beings (frequently mistaken for gods) born of collapsing stars. A chapter details their backstory, and the exposition is rattled off with vigour. It’s the kind of thing Steven Moffat does well on telly, to take potentially boring explanations and imbue them with a sense of pace and fun. The pacing in this story is excellent, the prose kinetic and romping for the most part, though slower and reflective occasionally to prevent whiplash in your internal reader. There are also some lovely inversions of tropes.
Ali, the companion in this story, is similar to Leela if Leela was a precocious alien scorpion. She has the now-standard moment of reacting to her first alien planet, which in this case is Earth. After going on something of a rampage, the Doctor acknowledges that she can’t say, but he’s quite understanding. This is the Ninth Doctor pre-Dalek, still damaged, and accepting his companion killing humans due to her inherent nature. That’s not something you see in many children’s books. Delightfully, the Doctor does come back for Ali at an unspecified point in the future. That – and this phrase crops up a few times in The Beast of Babylon – is another story. It’s a great last line for Doctor Who, an entity consisting of an infinite number of stories sprawling forever in all directions.
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