Patrick Ness writing Doctor Who is a hugely exciting prospect. A Doctor Who story set in Maine is a hugely exciting prospect (Stephen King probably isn’t going to write one of these).
Ness has taken a considered look at a considered Doctor, and came up with what we’d now term a ‘Doctor-light’ story. The action unfolds with two children as our leads. Johhny and Nettie are young teenage outcasts – of German-Jewish and mixed-race familes respectively – in America during 1944. Johnny fancies Marisa, she of the aloof angelic type, and despite his poverty (his Dad is away fighting in Europe, he and his Mum work evening jobs) has shelled out on a second-hand Truth Teller.
Truth Tellers are small, sad looking creatures who hang off the tongue like fleshy ties, and speak only the truth. Ness has a lot of fun with this concept, showing the havoc it wreaks among the adults of a small town, followed by the ensuing exacerbated cruelty of children. Then he takes his jokes and twists them into something more tragic. The setting allows him to deal with issues of warfare, poverty, racism and slavery, as well as being a young adult in a different time.
In some respects, this feels tonally similar to Nightmare in Silver, in that the tone is child-friendly, but not patronising. Considering ‘for kids’ is often used in a derogatory context, Ness’ engaging prose style – a man clearly having fun with words and language – is evidence of how silly an argument this is, as if all things ‘for adults’ are intrinsically superior.
Prose is a difficult medium in which to characterise someone as inconsistent as the Doctor, but Ness has done his research (indeed, in a YouTube interview, he says he has specifically read rather than watched), and not only can you hear Peter Davison saying the lines but you get a very strong ‘Old man trapped in a young man’s body’ vibe. Some dialogue suggests viewing of Time Crash or listening to Big Finish: Nyssa and the Doctor as alien authority figures with a twinkle in their eyes. It’s nice to see them being cheerful, investigating away in the background as other characters take centre stage, especially considering where this story is set chronologically.
Overall, Ness has written something fun, but with depth to it, and provided us with a novel setting for a Doctor Who story. It’s nice to see a way to balance an introduction to the Fifth Doctor with a very different kind of story, one in which recognisable characters act as a gateway to a different time and place for younger readers. The story ends, then, with the Doctor summing up the beauty of time and space travel, which is as good a description of what fiction like this does for the reader as any.
Read Andrew’s review of the previous story, The Roots of Evil, here.
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