On the 53rd anniversary, Matthew Kresal looks back at a highlight from the Doctor Who's 35th year.
Eighteen years can be a long time. It's the space of time that separates William Hartnell in An Unearthly Child from Tom Baker in Logopolis. It's the space of time that separates Sylvester McCoy in Remembrance Of The Daleks from David Tennant in Doomsday. It's also the period of time, give or take a month or two, from the release of Lance Parkin's The Infinity Doctors to me writing this retrospective. It was half that time ago that separates when I first read it and loved it. As Doctor Who fans, we're warned that the memory cheats but is that always the case?
What primarily sets The Infinity Doctors apart both then and now is what Parkin chose to do with it. Within pages of starting the novel, it's clear this isn't quite the Doctor Who you might have been expecting going in. The novel is not unlike the later Big Finish series Doctor Who Unbound, set outside the usual confines of the series. It's something that has driven some fans crazy in the past two decades, trying to figure out where and when it fits into the show's canon. Without a specified Doctor, is it a pre-Unearthly Child First Doctor, the Eighth Doctor of the BBC novels, an Eighth Doctor before the Time War (which would be created by Russell T Davies in a few more years), or none of the above even?
Here's another, perhaps more important question: Does it really even matter?
What Parkin does in the space of 280 pages is exactly what the blurb suggests "celebrate[s] the thirty-fifth anniversary of Doctor Who." Parkin draws on three and a half decades of Doctor Who lore across different media ranging from TV to comics to novels to create a sweeping vision of the Doctor's homeworld of Gallifrey rarely seen elsewhere (except maybe in Marc Platt's Lungbarrow which gets referenced here as well). Expect appearances by some familiar names and faces, new visions of familiar places, and much more. Yet the novel rarely feels like it's just covering old ground but is instead reinventing it around you, making it readable by fans both new and old.
Nowhere are things both familiar and different than with the Doctor himself. The aforementioned questions of identity linger over the novel throughout, from the first time we meet this Doctor with close-cropped hair and a long face. There's strong echoes of Paul McGann's Eighth Doctor to him, especially in the characterization and dialogue. There's a more human aspect to this Doctor, a sense of genuine wonder and excitement to him that feels in keeping with McGann's Doctor and there's even a brief reference to the TV Movie thrown in at one point. Yet in other ways he completely new to us, a different man from the Doctors we had encountered before (or even since). He's does things that are very Doctorish but aren't quite in keeping with any of the ones we've met before, particularly a set of actions going into the last act of the novel. The Doctor at once familiar but with layers that perhaps only a literary work could explore.
Nowhere is all that more clear than in the novel's last act. In it, Parkin brings together elements from not just different media but across the show's history into an incredible series of events that brings back one of the show's villains, explores the Doctor's background, puts Gallifrey along with the rest universe under threat, and pulls off a great meta-ficitonal moment on page 229 along the way. It also includes the scene that gives this novel its title, and raises a good point about the nature of canon and the history of the series: that as important as it might seem to ask how we got here, there are times when we need to just enjoy where we are and find ways of going forward. For a series that had been off the air for nearly a decade, that was still years away from regenerating for a new audience in a new century, it was an important message and the sense of false nostalgia stopping progress is one that is as important now as it was then, for both the series and the reader alike.
Whatever Doctor it might feature and at whatever point in his life it might take place aside, what's clear after nine years and two separate readings is that there isn't anything else quite like The Infinity Doctors anywhere else in the series. Within its 280 pages, Parkin doesn't just celebrate Doctor Who at thirty-five but turns it and everything we think we know on its head. It's not a case of out with the old, in with the new but finding new ways to explore old ground and tell a story that uses the past as a springboard for the future. It's no wonder then that in the first I, Who book Lars Pearson described this as the perfect novel to make into a Doctor Who feature film. "What's old is new," as the saying goes. The Infinity Doctors, after nearly two decades, proves that point rather admirably and remains a must-read for fans of Doctor Who.
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.