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The Great Virgin New Adventures Review: Cat’s Cradle – Time’s Crucible & Warhead

Following on from Timewyrm, Virgin Books decided to give us a new trilogy entitled Cat’s Cradle, which is an interesting read. Personally, I wasn’t as impressed by this trilogy as I was with Timewyrm but there is still a surprising amount of content to praise these books for. And both these books come from two people who worked on the show before it was ended in 1989.

So in that way, perhaps this trilogy is closer to the television series than the previous set.

TIME’S CRUCIBLE: WRITTEN BY MARC PLATT

The opening story, Time’s Crucible is written by Marc Platt, the same man who gave us the confusing, yet entertaining Ghost Light on screen. And at first glance, Time’s Crucible is another confusing entry into Platt’s contributions to Doctor Who.  We’ve got many different time-streams being fused together and plenty of different characters which almost made me stop reading, to begin with.

My problem is that I love reading but if there are too many characters being introduced to me in a short space of time, I lose track of who’s who. There have been a few of these Virgin Books which have nearly lost me because of how many characters are involved and Time’s Crucible nearly did the same. It was only through perseverance that I continued, determined to say I’d read virtually all of the output.

All of that does make it sound like I didn’t enjoy this book but in the end, I was pleasantly surprised by it.  The whole thing is told almost entirely from Ace’s perspective which helps the narrative move along nicely. Had it been told from the Doctor’s things would have just descended into chaos quickly. It is a book that is told in a non-linear lay out and from that perspective, it keeps things interesting, just make sure your brain is ready for a workout here!

A textless cover for Cat's Cradle: Time's Crucible
A textless cover for Cat’s Cradle: Time’s Crucible

With seasons 25/26 of the television series, we fans will often refer to those stories as The Cartmel Masterplan, with the idea being that the Doctor was going to go back to Gallifrey, drop Ace off to join the Academy and then the Doctor would be found to be one of the founders of his home-world, raising him to almost god-like status by the rest of the universe. I’m not too sure how that would have worked on screen, Cartmel actually explores the idea in a future novel, Lungbarrow, but the seeds for that can be read here.

Time’s Crucible goes back and does a lot of world-building for Gallifrey’s birth, including an evil creature, Pythia who curses the children of Gallifrey so they will never bear children. Pythia is also a member of the Sisterhood of Karn, who also get an origin story of sorts here. But it all plays into the Masterplan, which we will see played out later down the line, and we can discuss the continuity of, later down the line because that could be an article in itself!

We also get introduced to a brand new villain, called The Process and this book sees its birth in the City. Like the Timewyrm, it’s invaded the TARDIS somehow, but unlike the Timewyrm, it is actually playing around with the Time Machine, causing the lock to melt and warp time around the outside. Inside, it is removing rooms and replacing them with what it wants. It is a being that is far from human but not as silly as the name might suggest.

Marc Platt is an author who I’ve always enjoyed the work of, and Time’s Crucible is no exception, even if it did take me a rather long time to deceiver what it was trying to tell me. It is certainly not a book I’ll go back to in a hurry but I mean that in a good way as it really serves as a way of playing into the grand scheme of these books rather than anything else. Cartmel’s masterplan is front and centre here and it is exciting to see where that is going to take us. If the past books have been any indicator, it’ll be someplace darker than the television series would have ever allowed…

WARHEAD: WRITTEN BY ANDREW CARTMEL

Just like Time’s Crucible, Warhead is another book which is told out of linear order. We jump across time-zones with reckless abandon and it is another book that requires your fullest attention. Being a shorter book than Time’s Crucible meant that it didn’t feel like it outstayed its welcome and it is packed with great ideas, even if some of them aren’t fully realised to a great extent.

What is nice is that the book opens with a passage concerning Ace’s friend Shreela, who we met in Survival. These books loved putting Ace and her friends through the wringer and this book sees the toxicity of the Earth’s atmosphere killing Shreela who suffers from severe asthma. In one shocking line of dialogue, the Doctor seems to suggest to Shreela and the reader that she will be dead by the morning but he needs her to write an expose on the mysterious Butler institute before she does that.

It is yet another example of how cruel and cold this incarnation of the Seventh Doctor is, so much so that even Shreela calls him out on it! It’s a great passage though and a great way to open the book, pulling on the heart-strings, even though it’s about a character we had only met properly once before.

The Butler Institute proves to be an interesting concept too and the book doesn’t pull its punches in making it clear that they are behind the Earth’s atmospheric problems while mirroring some real-life problems with corporations in a similar vein. And while I don’t usually enjoy long passages and chapters in my Doctor Who books without either the Doctor or selected companion, the characters associated with the Butler Insitute were interesting enough to keep my attention throughout and for one or two of them, I genuinely felt myself feeling danger for their situations. Not something that is easily achieved with me but Cartmel seems to manage it with ease here!

Following on from the depressing opening with Shreela, Cartmel doesn’t let up with the grim tones in this book. While we see characters dying all the time in the television series, we rarely see what happens to them after that. And we rarely see the level of violence that is on display here, especially towards the companion. Poor Ace is beaten-up a number of times and the Doctor doesn’t seem to care, showing again, a much colder version of this incarnation.

But Ace is also getting stronger and much colder, she doesn’t seem to care anymore that the Doctor is constantly manipulating her and putting her in harms-way, its a dangerous situation for her to be in, especially as its a concept we saw play out in the modern series with the Twelfth Doctor and Clara.

The cover for Cat's Cradle: Warhead
The cover for Cat’s Cradle: Warhead

Speaking of a much colder Doctor, he seems to have engineered this entire book. The few mistakes the Doctor makes in this book are only small miscalculations on his part as he and the TARDIS are still recovering from the events of the previous novel. He is directly responsible for just about every-single death that occurs in these pages and this is a Doctor who is far removed from David Tennant’s ‘One-Chance‘ but otherwise fun-loving, incarnation.

Perhaps the vilest character in these pages though is the owner of The Butler Institute, O’Hara, who manipulates his son into undergoing experiments and then kills his wife when she finds out he killed their son. All through the book O’Hara is despicable, treating people like dirt and an afterthought, even if they are there to help him. One almost cheers when he meets his demise at the end of the book.

However, I was very disappointed when this book turned out to not be a Cyberman story. It is a tale about changing people to adapt to their changing environment and there are similarities here between O’Hara’s plans and those of John Lumic in Rise of the Cybermen/Age of Steel. Both of these characters want to ascend from the trappings of the human-flesh and evolve to what they believe is the next step in human-evolution. And while I was disappointed it wasn’t a Cyberman story, O’Hara proves to be more than a worthy villain in the long run.

What sets this book apart from other Doctor Who stories of a similar vein is that this one plays out like a heist-story. We had one of those on-screen with Time-Heist but this book came first and the Doctor assembles a crack team of seemingly unconnected people to help him bring down The Butler Institute. This isn’t the first time that similar ideas have appeared on screen but I would put my head on the line and say that the Virgin Books did them first and mostly did them much better.

Warhead also provides an opening story of an unofficial trilogy of adventures forming ‘The War Trilogy’ with two follow up stories, Warlock and Warchild, coming further down the line. They are unofficial because they weren’t marketed as such but they all follow the storyline Cartmel set up here.

With plenty of action and interesting concepts littered throughout these pages, Warhead is an excellent read that doesn’t really feel part of the trilogy it came from. Unlike Time’s Crucible, the non-linear way of story-telling is used excellently here with the Doctor forming a team of allies from across time. This is another strong entry into the Virgin Books range and strange continuity that comes with the Doctor Who world and a book that is definitely worth seeking out.

NEXT TIME: CAT’S CRADLE COMES TO AN END WITH WITCHMARK AND MEET THE MYSTERIOUS PROFESSOR NIGHTSHADE…

Jordan Shortman

Jordan has loved Doctor Who for as long as he can remember and television in general. Many people blame his old teacher for what they believe his is obsession, he doesn't care though, his head is off in time and space most of the time.