Matthew Kresal checks out the recent War Doctor novel, Engines of War.
Since its revival in 2005, much attention has been focused on the Time War, a conflict between the Daleks and the Time Lords that has formed much of the back-story of the New Series. As time has passed, the series has given us references to events and things associated with the Time War and, in the cases of 2010's End Of Time Part Two and last year's fiftieth anniversary special The Day Of The Doctor, glimpses of the war itself and the Doctor who fought it. Following quickly on the heels of the most recent glimpse of the war and the introduction of John Hurt's War Doctor comes Engines Of War, a novel by George Mann that promises on its back-cover “An epic novel of the Great Time War featuring the War Doctor, as played by John Hurt.” But does it deliver?
Given the limited amount of screen time that Hurt's War Doctor had last year, it would seem that one of the difficulties of writing a Time War story would be capturing this Doctor. Yet Mann does exactly that here, extrapolating from Hurt's performance who this Doctor is and just what he's capable of doing, from killing an incubation chamber full of Dalek mutants, to defying the Time Lords (and just strangling one of them as well). Yet for all of that, there's hints of the man he used to be in here as well and most especially in his interactions with Cinder, who effectively becomes his companion for the novel's duration and whom he admits to having with him “To remind me of who I'm not,” at one point. The icing on the cake though might be the dialogue where Mann leaves the reader hearing Hurt's delivery in their mind's ear as it were. Like writers did nearly twenty years ago with Paul McGann, Mann takes Hurt's limited screen time and uses it to create a whole tale based around him.
Along with his capturing of Hurt's War Doctor, Mann is also successful in taking many of the references made to the Time War throughout the New Series' now eight year run and working them into the story. We're presented with the Skaro Degradations (first referenced in the aforementioned End Of Time Part Two) within the first chapter and from there were presented with looks at both the Time Lords and Daleks alike, ranging from Rassilon and the High Council, to the Dalek's Eternity Circle. In particular, and with just a handful of scenes in the middle of the novel, Mann captures the Timothy Dalton incarnation of Rassilon and offers some details as to how the founder of Time Lord society came to be resurrected. As well as building on the Time War references of the New Series, fans of Old Series stories set on Gallifrey will likely pick on references and appearances by characters from at least a couple of those stories, including a surprise appearance by one Time Lord character in particular. Combined with references to events stretching across the Time War and its effect on the universe of large, the novel presents the most complete picture (albeit in prose) of the Time War that fans have yet had.
Above all else, Engines Of War shows us the events that led this Doctor to the point we saw him at in The Day Of The Doctor. Early on in the novel, we're given confirmation that this is the older Doctor we saw in that special, though he certainly proves himself more than capable of action. The fact that it's set at that point is key, as the events of the novel provide the bridge from the warrior to the old, bitter, perhaps even depressed man we meet in the special who has decided that there's no other choice but to use The Moment. While the fact that we're not given a bigger picture of the Time War might come as a bit of a disappointment for some, Mann more than makes up for this through the references mentioned above and with an action packed tale that shows us the width and breath of the Time War across time and space and its effect on this incarnation of the Doctor.
(Those interested in reading more of the War Doctor might be interested in a for charity anthology set to come out later this year called Seasons Of War whose contributors include Mann and a number of other Who writers. You can find out more information here.)
In the final analysis then, does Engines Of War live up to its promise of being the “epic novel of the great Time War” it promises to be? The answer, thanks to the perfect capturing of Hurt's War Doctor and its action packed plot, is a most definite yes. This is the Time War tale that fans have been waiting for since 2005 and a must read for Doctor Who fans.
Matthew Kresal lives in North Alabama where he's a nerd, doesn't
have a southern accent and isn't a Republican. He's a host of both the
Big Finish centric Stories From The Vortex podcast and the 20mb Doctor Who Podcast. You can read more of his writing at his blog and at The Terrible Zodin fanzine, amongst other places.