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Ghost Ship (Doctor Who Novellas)

by Keith Topping

(Telos Publishing, 25.00, 104 pages, limited edition hardback, also available as standard edition priced 10.00, published 22 August 2002.)

I come to this novella as a semi-lapsed Doctor Who fan, still watching the odd video from time to time, still reading the magazine if I find it in someone else's house, skimming the occasional fan web-site. For me, Tom Baker will always be the Doctor that the others have to measure up to, and in my completely unbiased opinion the best single story of the Tom Baker years was The Deadly Assassin. A novella set immediately after The Deadly Assassin, especially one told in the first person from the Doctor's point of view, seemed to me an ambitious project but I was prepared to give it a fair wind.

I was somewhat put off by the attached press release, and the foreword (by Hugh Lamb), both of which stressed how impressive it was that the author had written a ghost story with a Doctor Who setting. As far as I remember the TV series often dealt with supernatural themes, which sometimes turned out to have vaguely respectable scientific explanations, and sometimes did not. The publicists' insistence on the originality of the plot in Ghost Ship reminded me a bit of Samuel Johnson's quip about a woman preaching being like a dog walking on its hind legs: the impressive thing being "not that it is done well, but that it is done at all."

And so it was to be. The eventual pseudo-scientific "explanation" for the ghosts haunting the Queen Mary, on which the story is set, is flagged up almost at the beginning. One minor character is killed off horribly and pointlessly halfway through, and another at the end. Yet another is introduced to us in great detail via a long and tedious conversation with the Doctor and never appears again. The prose is purple. One particularly lurid sentence describes the Doctor's reaction to a spectral apparition: "A repulsion from the hard-headed scientist within me rose to a shouting crescendo of outraged disbelief." Thog, take note.

The Doctor portrayed here is not the witty, know-it-all Fourth Doctor I remember, but a much less interesting version of the depressed and gloomy Tom Baker revealed in the actor's autobiography. It's quite extraordinary to take one of the greatest sf characters of all time and turn him into a miserable git, like Levin from Anna Karenina but without the love interest. On top of that, the Doctor's occasional allusions to past adventures or historical events seem strangely out of whack, for example a reference to the non-existent Christ's College, Oxford.

The choice of October 1963 as the setting also seemed utterly inexplicable. The following month would surely have been much more appropriate for a ghost story, seeing as how it saw John F. Kennedy, Aldous Huxley and C.S. Lewis all shuffling off their mortal coils on the 22nd. (And wasn't there a new BBC science fiction programme that started the following day?) There are a number of whacking huge holes in the plot, but you probably get the idea. It's a shame, because I have enjoyed Keith Topping's non-fiction work.

I see that this story has been quite well reviewed on some of the fan websites. Perhaps if it is considered purely as a psychological exploration of the more reflective "I walk in eternity"/"Have I the right?" aspects of the Fourth Doctor's character, it could be rated a partial success. It should also be said that the presentation is attractive and the Dariusz Jasiczak frontispiece for the deluxe edition striking. But if Doctor Who fiction is to amount to anything it must surely be able to stand up to scrutiny as good writing, not merely as nicely packaged slightly-above-average fan-fic, and this does not.

Review by Nicholas Whyte.

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