Wednesday, 18 February 2015

SEASONS OF WAR: Tales From A Time War - ed. Declan May (2015) PART 3

Andrew Smith and Matthew Smith – the two names from my youth which occasioned in me such feelings of jealousy that I might as well have had a big sign on my forehead that said ‘under achiever’.  Games’ buffs of a certain vintage will recognise the latter name as that of the teenager who wrote Spectrum classics ‘Manic Miner’ and ‘Jet Set Willy’ but it was the former who convinced the thirteen year old me that I’d already missed the talent boat.  Author of really rather brilliant tv story ‘Full Circle’ while still in Primary school (or so it felt at the time), Smith disappeared into the black hole which is the Police Force, and has only recently resurfaced in our little corner of the internet, producing work for Big Finish and now – more unexpectedly, perhaps – for Declan May in this book.

But enough of the slightly breathless history lesson, what’s ‘The Celephas Gift’ like, I hear you ask?  It’s damn good, actually.  The story has a complete shape which, for all their positive qualities, some of the other stories so far have been missing (though, to be fair, those without such a structure have been so for a reason) – a sense that this story has a beginning, a middle and an end.  It helps that there’s something of a pre-credits sequence, as the Doctor completes one (unseen) adventure and then suffers the ramifications of the fallout from that adventure, but Smith is clever in that, while there’s a definite sense that this story takes place against the background of a wider War, and that this is not the Doctor we’re used to, there’s enough meat in the story he tells for us not to care that we’re not seeing the bigger picture.  A high spot of the early part of the collection, even amongst strong competition.

The next story but one is a reworking of a chunk of Shakespeare’s Henry V, so it’s good that two such meaty pieces are constructed around a third Declan May (this time with the assistance of John Davies) entry, ‘The Girl with the Purple Hair’.  Less immediately about the War Doctor himself than about his new, occasional companion, Jenny Shirt, and her perception of him as he visits at various points in his own timeline, it still manages to add another brick to the character May has been portraying all along.

And so to the reworking of Henry V!  In some ways this is simply an extended joke, with key roles for Commander Maxil (primarily remembered on Gallifrey, we are told, for shooting an unarmed man), Castellan Kelner (similarly ‘feted’ back home for his craven behaviour during the Invasion of Time) and Commentator Runcible (a joke all in and by himself), as well as any number of other references to make the long term fan chuckle in recognition.  But is it too much of a stretch to suggest that almost the last line of the footnotes makes the key point of the piece in noting that the cowardly Runcible, post-regeneration, ‘became a War TARDIS flotilla commander and was known as ‘Lady Runcible The Fearless’, one of the most ruthless and capable soldiers in her field’.  There’s a warrior in all of us, if need be, apparently….

‘…half-crazed Robomen, force-mutated mounds of pain rejecting their half-destroyed mechanical prostheses, and time-distorted semi-corpses from unidentifiable races…  If you were expecting more belly laughs from ‘Here Comes the Doctor’ by Christopher Bryant then you’re in for a disappointment, though I suspect that would be the only one you’d experience.  I must admit the name is a new one to me, but I’m very keen to read more.  There’s an air of RTD about the way he punctuates the meat of the plot with carefully constructed lists like the one above, or drops unexplained references  - ‘I saw the birthing of the Final Pathogen’ – into the Doctor’s dialogue.  Equally, though,  there’s an old school feel to the Doctor turning up in disguise rather than waving the psychic paper around, then having to use his wits to convince people he’s the good guy.  For myself, I though it was missing a trick to have the Daleks turn out to be the bad guys (though the clues were there, which I did appreciate, in retrospect) but the author makes up for that by allowing the story to continue beyond the point at which a common or garden short story would stop (read it yourself – didn’t you expect Aceso wasting the flying Daleks to be the end?).  And Bryant’s War Doctor – the Patient, as he’s known here – makes May’s look like the softest liberal bleeding heart ever.  “People change’, indeed.   Christ. 

A really good short story feels like a novel in miniature – obviously not so detailed and maybe not so tricky, but with several characters interacting in several different ways, and a variety of plot twists and so on.  A really great short story does all that and yet still feels the perfect length.  This is a great short story, simple as that. to buy the ebook.  There's a paperback (and reviews of the next few stories) yet to come... 

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