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Doctor Who Novellas: Companion Piece

by Robert Perry and Mike Tucker

(Telos Publishing, £25.00, 100 pages, deluxe hardback, signed and numbered; also available as standard edition priced £10.00; December 2003.)

Review by Caleb Woodbridge

I was looking forward to Companion Piece, set during the Holy Inquisition during the 28th century, and apparently taking on some big questions. Doctor Who, possibly wisely, doesn't in general touch on the subject of religion with any more depth than the occasional stock in trade Mad Priest, and so Telos' line of inventive novellas seemed an ideal place in the Whoniverse to do so. I'm a big fan of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, because although I disagree quite fundamentally with his views, especially his portrayal of the supposedly "Christian" God, I enjoy the thought and discussion that his books inspire while still being excellent stories. While I wasn't expecting something on that same level, I hoped it would be something entertaining and challenging. Something that hopefully I could get my teeth into, and enjoy debating.

The story opens very promisingly, with the dramatic crash-landing of a TARDIS, a Time Lord space-time machine, on the Catholic colony world of Braak. But this goes unexplained and has little bearing on the rest of the plot, and only serves to make the Catholic Church (since everyone knows that they are all superstitious bigots, of course!) declare that any more Time Lords they come across should be subjected to horrible tortures and burned at the stake. I can hear the Doctor's own TARDIS being drawn to the planet by the strange and mysterious force of narrative already ... Once he arrives, everything proceeds as might be expected -- Doctor and companion get separated, they get captured, and so on.

Speaking of companions, having brought their own "season" of adventures in print for the Seventh Doctor and Ace to its conclusion in last year's Loving the Alien, Perry and Tucker move on to something slightly different with the introduction of a new companion. Or maybe not, as Ace, a gung-ho young lady who speaks using unconvincing "with-it" slang and a tendency to, much to the Doctor's chagrin, get him out of scrapes by use of high explosives, is replaced with Cat, a gung-ho young lady who speaks using unconvincing "with-it" slang and a tendency to, much to the Doctor's chagrin, get him out of scrapes by use of, er, cybernetic mini-robots. Initially I didn't feel there was much need for this new companion but it becomes clear that, as the title of the books suggests, this is very much her story, and by the end I had decided that I would be happy to see more of Ms Broome in future stories. Unfortunately, since Telos Publishing have now lost the licence to publish Doctor Who novellas, that is probably rather unlikely. The Doctor is captured in print by the authors with now characteristic ease, neatly balancing both his light-hearted side as he does tricks for children in the market on Braak and also his melancholy as he muses on his need for companions with whom to share his adventures.

By midway through, the story seems to be playing second fiddle to the book's religious discussions. I don't necessarily have a problem with this, but such things need to be handled much better than they are here, and didn't really grab my interest. Partly it's because the main target for the novel's satire is the Catholic Church. Pointing out that it is a very strange institution that has on numerous occasions abused its power is rather, well, obvious. It's also beating around the burning bush, going for the man-made religious structures and institutions rather than the real nitty-gritty of such things as the ideas of God and souls, sin and salvation. In Pullman's trilogy, one of the characters "turned away from a rebellion against the church not because it was too strong, but because it was too weak to be worth the fighting", choosing instead to try and destroy "the Authority" (supposedly God). This book makes the mistake of being more about the church than about religious concepts themselves, and so is limited in scope and ambition.

Rather than being thought-provoking through the concepts, characters and narrative, the story's themes are raised clumsily by devices such as having characters sitting around chatting about whether Cybermen have souls. Examining the boundary between living creature and machine, between spiritual creature and mere life-form or device is potentially interesting, but this potential is largely unfulfilled. One place in which the story does succeed to being thought-provoking in itself is in the revelatory ending. Unfortunately it is not a terribly original twist, and the book even has an afterword apologising that it has been used elsewhere in Doctor Who recently, apparently coincidentally. (Silly me read the afterword before the main story, which helped me work out the ending in advance, though admittedly I mistakenly believed the story would end with a different recent twist for a good part of the story.) Even then, it's well-trodden ground in sf and by much better writers than Perry and Tucker, and though they have the sense not to drag out the story beyond that final dramatic moment, it's a pity that other elements of the plot could not have been resolved beforehand.

The book could best be described as a missed opportunity. Its better features only serve to highlight how good it could have been if it really had succeeded as a story and as a discussion of spiritual and religious questions. Ironically given the book's themes, Companion Piece is perhaps a little like human nature -- great potential, yet deeply flawed, it begins with good intentions but wanders off and ends up in dire need of redemption and healing, or at least, some decent rewrites.

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