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The Great Virgin New Adventures Review: Cat’s Cradle – Witch Mark & Nightshade

So far I’ve really enjoyed reading these books from Virgin. They prove to be an interesting experiment with the Doctor Who mythos and offer a different and intriguing look at how the show might have changed as it headed into the 1990s onscreen. But the prose format allowed for a little more experimentation, more explicit adult themes and situations and much more character development, all of which we get with these two next novels, Witch Mark and Nightshade.

CAT’S CRADLE: WITCH MARK: WRITTEN BY ANDREW HUNT

As a fan of the horror genre in movies and television and someone who has a great deal of interesting in the paranormal in real life, I’ve always had something of a love/hate relationship when it comes to Doctor Who doing the supernatural. Sometimes we great stories like The Daemons, Static, Fear of the Dark or The Spectre of Lanyon Moor. Other-times, we end up with monitories in themselves like Night Terrors, Minuet in Hell, Hide and The Shakespeare Code (I don’t like it, I’m sorry). But very rarely do we get stories that fall in the middle of those, Vampires of Venice is one and Witch Mark is another that I didn’t hate, but I certainly didn’t enjoy. And it isn’t that it is a bad story with this one, the dialogue is clunky and there are some strange moments with plot threads that never get resolved. We’ve got demonic versions of the Doctor and Ace who just vanish and apparently turn up later in a future book but it is a moment that takes you out of the story nevertheless.

The prose is strange two with two disjointed storylines making for a confusing read, with one strand set in a Welsh village and the other in a strange fantasy land called “Tir na n-Og”. The storyline in Wales is played out like a high-stakes detective novel with no high-stakes while the fantasy plot seems to be something from a youngsters quest in a game of Dungeons & Dragons.

However, having said that, it is quite a clever story with the usual way Doctor Who has in dealing with the supernatural and giving it all a scientific explanation, although far too late into the proceedings. Which is a shame because sometimes one wants their werewolves to be werewolves and their unicorns to be just unicorns!

The cover for Cat's Cradle: Witch Mark
The cover for Cat’s Cradle: Witch Mark

We also get another brilliant alien here with a non-human perspective on everything. The Virgin New Adventures seems to be really good at giving us aliens like that and Hunt gives us some great sympathetic characters both human and otherwise. He also seems to have a good handle on the Doctor who isn’t cruel or manipulative or cold and depressed which is the impression most writers for these books seemed to have. Sure he has his moments but here feels more like the fun-loving Seventh Doctor from his first series.

Hunt doesn’t have however a good handle on Ace as she feels more like the version of the character we saw on television. Don’t get me wrong, Ace is one of my favourite companions but these books had gone to a great length to give her more development beyond someone who just likes to blow things up. It might have gone a little more unnoticed if the previous book hadn’t had her running around hiring mercenaries, travelling internationally and breaking and entering so her change in character here is almost disappointing.

We also get some nice characters in the form of Hugh and Janet, two characters we met in Delta and the Bannermen as much of this story takes place around the same area. I’ve always had a soft spot for that story so it was nice, at least to me, to return to the same location (ish) and met up with some of the same characters. I certainly found the best part of the book to be those passages and chapters set in Wales as the fantasy plot could sometimes feel like a bad-crossover between Conan the Barbarian and Dungeons & Dragons, with the massacre, pillaging, nudity and sexual dialogue that comes with both those things. Plus I’ve never really enjoyed that type of fantasy, Dark Crystal, Labyrinth and Lord of the Rings have never interested me so those elements of this book were always going to be a hard sell to me.

And it also pretty hard to class Cat’s Cradle as a proper trilogy. Timewyrm had four stories that were clearly linked together whereas these books, though there are few elements that hold them together, are largely stand-alone reads. And while the problems with the TARDIS, that were a major link between these three books, is finally fixed at the end, it feels even more tacked on, especially as it ends with the question as to whether those problems have actually been solved.

Witch Mark will never be one of the best novels to come out of this range. But isn’t the worst one, so far that position is held for the ironically titled, The Pit, in a few novels time, and I think that Witch Mark has something of an unfair reputation. With some shaky plot and dialogue, what the story makes up for that with is a lot of character work and an interesting if, the slightly underdeveloped main plot. As I said above, Witch Mark falls somewhere in the middle of the Doctor Who-supernatural stories but as it turns out, that isn’t actually a bad place to be.

NIGHTSHADE: WRITTEN BY MARK GATISS

Nightshade is the first book of the range which isn’t part of an overarching story-arc and because of that, it allows Mark Gatiss a lot of creative freedom. No longer constrained by a long plot, Nightshade sees a particularly moody Seventh Doctor contemplating retirement but its a pretty selfish move for him as he also has Ace to consider and he considers returning to Gallifrey.

For much of the book, the Doctor is trying to avoid events that are unfolding around him. But gradually, he finds himself forced to partake in the events happening around him, lead on by Ace, who practically forces him to investigate the nearby radio satellite station. It is an interesting dynamic to the Doctor, rarely have we seen him this sullen and grumpy, perhaps the last time was at the end of The Massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Eve, when the First Doctor contemplates going back to Gallifrey, failing to save the young Chaplet girl and Steven threatening to leave the TARDIS at the next opportunity. But it is also a character trait that gets tiresome very quickly. The Seventh Doctor is at his most interesting when he is being manipulative and quirky. Not when he is as miserable as this and it’s a welcome relief when he gets more involved in the plot later on.

Instead, Gatiss places a lot of the plot onto the shoulders of Ace, who also goes through a character transformation here. The previous novels went to great lengths to give her more character and show us some of the defining moments of her childhood and life on Earth prior to meeting the Doctor. It isn’t long though before she begins to change her mind about staying on Earth in this time period with the Doctor as she soon falls for a young man called Robin, in many ways the complete opposite to Ace. Ace was always ready for a fight, happy to defend her friends and herself and threw herself into her adventures. Robin is quiet, timid and almost afraid to fight, not bad things to be but not necessarily a match for a personality like Ace’s. Nevertheless they hit it off pretty quickly and for a while, Gatiss seems to let it play out like Ace is going to leave at the end of the book, having fallen in love, like a few of the Doctor’s previous companions had done, perhaps most notably Jo Grant at the end of The Green Death.

The cover for Nightshade
The cover for Nightshade

But the Seventh Doctor’s manipulations aren’t done yet and while he verbally agrees for her leave, he still spirits her away in the TARDIS at the end of the book, forcing Ace and Robin apart. Gatiss does tantalisingly leave this ambiguous as to whether the Doctor meant to or not. I’ve always read into that the Doctor didn’t want to be without Ace and couldn’t bring himself to say goodbye to another companion. While I’ve got a nice outlook on the act, Ace sees things differently and the following novel, Love and War would see her bow out at the end.

Nightshade is almost quieter in its storytelling. It’s a prospective look back as well as a look ahead. We’ve got a prologue that opens on the First Doctor leaving Gallifrey. It’s never mentioned that its the Doctor but its heavy context is obvious, though it differs from the events we could read about later in Lungbarrow and then see onscreen in The Name of the Doctor. We’ve also got a new console room, as well as the foreshadowing of a new companion in the form of Bernice Summerfield in the next book.

Susan also features quite heavily here as the Doctor’s memories of his granddaughter form a lot of the backbone of the story, even leading to a confrontation of sorts between the Seventh Doctor and Susan towards the end of the book. Ace is also plagued by things from her past as she is forced to face the memories of her mother. It gradually becomes enjoyably clear that memories and we choose to look back on things is the main narrative plot throughout this book.

Gatiss also introduces us to Professor Nightshade himself, or the actor who played him, Edmund Trevithick. Nightshade is a meta-Doctor Who, a fictional programme that also parodies Professor Quatermass of Hammer Horror fame.  The monsters of this book are the fictional aliens he had to fight are adapted into real by the true villain, the disembodied entity, The Sentience. What is really fun is to see how much fun Edmund is having getting to relive his old adventures in his old age and he sees it almost as the BBC remaking his old television series. Of course, his enjoyment of the events quickly dispels when he has to face his old enemies again in the third act of the book. But it is impossible not to like Edmund and his spiky, energetic and quick mind and the cover of the book puts us in mind of Peter Cushing, the Movie-Doctor of the 1960s, the resemblance between Edmund and Cushing is uncanny on the cover.

Gatiss doesn’t hold back on killing the characters in this book, though surprisingly this isn’t the book with the most deaths. The town of Crook Marsham had a population of a few hundred at the beginning of the book, by the end, they are down to sixty-five. Unlike some books, this one doesn’t gloss over that fact either. But had the Doctor not gotten involved, it might have been another world-wide disaster.

Overall though, Nightshade has a feeling of nostalgia surrounding the whole piece. No doubt this is purposely down to Gatiss but knowing this is almost the end of the line for the Doctor and Ace dynamic we all know and love gives the book some melancholy undertones. Reading this book, you’ll be happy and sad at the same time. But it also feels like the series is finally moving out from under the shadow of its television persona and moving in a brand new direction. Everything changes in the next book and this is a great way to usher out the old way of Doctor Who storytelling. Bringing the adventure back to Earth and giving the Doctor and Ace one final monster to face before they went their separate ways. This was the first of the VNA’s that I couldn’t put down and its well worth a read if you can find it for a decent price online.

NEXT TIME: EXIT ACE AND ENTER BERNICE SUMMERFIELD AND SAY HELLO TO THE FIRST BOOK TO DROP THE NOTORIOUS ‘F’-BOMB…