Matthew Kresal revisits the very first Eighth Doctor novel, The Dying Days.
If Doctor Who has shown us anything in the last fifty-odd years, it is that change is inevitable. 1997 certainly proved that was the case as the optimism surrounding the previous year's TV Movie gave way to cynicism when it failed to produce a revived television series. In the world of the Doctor's literary adventures, change was in the air as well as the BBC effectively revoked its license to Virgin in favor of starting its own series of novels. While the Virgin New Adventures had a last hurray in the form of Lungbarrow, which tied up much of the range's ongoing story arcs with the Seventh Doctor, Lance Parkin's The Dying Days, released April 1997, would be its sendoff and the first literary outing for the then new Eighth Doctor.
Oddly for the last novel in the range, and perhaps because Lungbarrow had preceded it, this is strangely upbeat in tone. A large part of that might have to do with the fact that it has the distinction of being the Eighth Doctor's first literary appearance. Given that Parkin only had the TV Movie to go on, he captures the Eghth Doctor masterfully, once he gets past the first chapter's initial meeting between the Doctor and Benny. Parkin gets Paul McGann's speech patterns down pretty quickly and he captures this Doctor in a handful of moments as well, as demonstrated by a sequence where the Doctor goes out of his way to save a cat while trying to get away from poisonous gas. Nowhere perhaps though does Parkin capture McGann better than in the last two chapters, including a moment that one might swear Steven Moffat pinched for The Pandorica Opens. The result is, surprisingly enough, one of the best characterization of this Doctor in book form.
Part of the upbeat tone might also have to do with the fact that, while this was the last Virgin New Adventure to feature the Doctor, they were about to continue with Bernice Summerfield or Benny to her friends. To a certain extent, this novel was a test run for her solo novels for a number of reason. Perhaps the biggest is that she gets an increased presence in the last hundred or so pages of The Dying Days where she very much takes center stage and quite literally becomes the central character in place of the Doctor. While this may be a Who book, it is at times as much Benny's tale as his as she has to effectively lead the resistance and gets to put her knowledge of the Martians to good use. Not to mention a certain (in)famous final scene that still has fans talking nearly twenty years later.
The Dying Days also features a wealth of references and characters from the past. The two Brigadiers both show up with Lethbridge-Stewart getting to play a major role in proceedings and bringing UNIT to do battle with them. The novel is also in a weird way a psuedo-sequel to The Ambassadors Of Death, with Mars 97 being the first manned UK Mars mission since 1977 with one of the former Mars Probe astronauts being a supporting character and former space controller Ralph Cornish making a cameo appearance. The previous Virgin Who book, Who Killed Kennedy, written as if by investigative journalist James Stevens, plays a minor role in the plot as having exposed UNIT and some of its operations to the public. Looking forward a bit, the image of a spaceship hovering over London in full view of the public and the subsequent invasion calls to mind what Russell T Davies would do nearly a decade later in David Tennant's first story The Christmas Invasion. And of course, there's the Ice Warriors...
Being the last novel of the range, and with Virgin effectively giving him something akin to free reign, Parkin presents us with a full fledged invasion of Britain by the Ice Warriors in full sight of the world. Not only is it an invasion but an occupation with a collaborative government, and, in one of the oddest and memorable moments of the book, a Martian King Of England is crowned! Parkin also has some fun proving that TV Movie producer Phillip Segal's insistence that an alien invasion couldn't be done with just two monsters, is wrong. Parkin gives us the Ice Lord Xznaal and a whole army of Ice Warriors but no more than two being seen at any one time. It's something the reader might not even notice but if you do spot it, it adds some flavor to this tale. There's also a clear influence of the various versions of H.G. Wells' The War Of The Worlds, particularly with the Red Death that comes into play in a couple of places which seems like a more modern update of the Black Smoke used by the Martians in that story. Also, for those who complained about the 2013 Mark Gatiss penned episode Cold War featuring an Ice Lord in an Ice Warrior uniform, they should perhaps take the time to track this book down because Parkin in fact did that more than fifteen years earlier.
Parkin clearly had a lot of fun writing The Dying Days, and it's abundant in references outside of Who as well. For example, there's a party early on in the novel that features a number of celebrity guests both real and fictional, including Emma Peel, Richard Dawkins and his wife - Romana actress Lalla Ward. During the party Benny gets mistaken for Emma Thompson (on whom the character was initially modeled on before actress Lisa Bowerman put her definitive stamp on her). Elsewhere we have both Sir Patrick Moore and Bernard Quatermass showing up on TV, discover that one of MI6's double-0 agents has been swapping around NASA data about Mars, and so on. Perhaps the biggest reference is one that lies in plain sight in the form of Lord Greyhaven who is very clearly modeled not just on actor Ian Richardson (who pops up in all of Parkin's Who novels) but the best known character he played: Francis Urqhart, the protagonist of the original House Of Cards series. It makes this a fun novel to read, to say the least.
The Dying Days then is many things. It was the Eighth Doctor's first literary adventure, his first and only appearance in the Virgin Who range. Yet despite being the end of the Virgin New Adventures in Doctor Who form, it isn't downbeat by any means. Instead, it is perhaps best read as a celebration of Virgin's run of Doctor Who novels that presented stories “too broad and too deep for the small screen”. If the expansive alien invasion seen in this novel, and the possible influences it's had on the New Series that I've pointed out, proves anything, it is that Virgin succeeded in that regard.
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.